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Ties make Palestinian state a SAmerican priority

Five South American nations have recognized Palestinian statehood in recent weeks, and several more are expected to do so soon.

The Palestinians are increasingly lobbying nations for recognition as leverage toward an elusive peace deal with Israel, and they are finding a sympathetic ear in South America — a region with long-standing cultural ties, diplomatic alliances and increasing trade with the Arab world.

Brazil started the trend with its recognition Dec. 3, then put trade with Arab nations squarely on the regional agenda when it hosted last month's summit of the Mercosur economic bloc. These relationships also should be on full display at a wider South American-Arab summit next month in Lima, Peru.

But while the Palestinians have deep-pocketed supporters among Arab states, they alone can't hope to fund the kind of checkbook diplomacy that China and Taiwan have employed for years in the world's smaller countries to forge alliances. And while securing foreign investment is a top priority for South America's leaders, they also have other reasons for following Brazil's lead.

"Obviously we're interested in more investments, but to think that because there's a bigger investment or a new Arabic investment it's going to define a foreign policy, it seems to me that this is to underestimate the independence, the judgment and the seriousness of the foreign policies of the countries of South America," Peruvian Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde told The Associated Press on Monday.

Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia sided with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in December by not only endorsing statehood but insisting on borders predating the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, territories Palestinians claim for a future state. The Palestinians consider Israel's refusal to stop building settlements in this land a mockery of the peace process, while the Israelis blame the Palestinians for refusing to keep negotiating nonetheless.

After consulting with both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera also decided to recognize Palestinian statehood on Friday. But Chile's position was studiously neutral, avoiding the border question and urging both sides to keep negotiating.

Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno said Monday that the issue "has to be worked out between Israel and Palestine," along with other questions ranging from water rights to security to the handling of refugees.

Chile's decision won faint praise from its Palestinian community, and local Jewish leaders were pleased to see it sidestep the frontier question.

"I don't think Chile gains anything, but it avoids bringing the conflict into Chile," Jewish Community president Gabriel Zaliasnik said. He added that Chile's position is close to that of the Quartet group supporting peace talks — the United States, Russia, United Nations and European Union.

The president of Chile's Palestinian Federation, Mauricio Abu Ghosh, called the Chilean recognition "a little lukewarm, but we understand that it's the first step." Speaking with local media over the weekend, he said he expects Pinera to explicitly back the Palestinian position when he visits Israel and the West Bank in March.

Moreno sought to dash that hope Monday. "In no way will it be us, nor Brazil nor Argentina, who determine what the limits will be," he said.

Venezuela previously recognized an independent Palestine in 2005, and Uruguay, Paraguay and Peru are also considering whether to join the more than 100 nations that have done so.

Chile and Argentina have their own reasons for their border stances.

Recognizing pre-1967 borders for a Palestinian state could undermine Chile's own refusal to cede territory it won from Peru and Bolivia in 1879. Both countries still actively campaign for rights to this territory, and Peru's case is pending before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.

Argentina, meanwhile, sees itself as the victim of an illegal land seizure — Britain's control of the Falkland Islands, which Argentina calls the Malvinas and still claims despite losing a disastrous war over the archipelago in 1982. The Palestinians have long supported the position Argentina raises in nearly every international forum: that Britain violates U.N. agreements by refusing to negotiate the islands' sovereignty.

Cultural ties also are key. Brazil and Paraguay have sizable Lebanese populations, Syrians are prominent in Argentina and Chile's Palestinian community, some 400,000 strong, is among the largest outside the Middle East.

Many of these migrants from the Arab world established themselves in South America decades ago. Today they include some of the region's most powerful business and political leaders, and in Chile in particular, there was pressure in Congress for Pinera to take a stand.

These statehood declarations are coming amid intensifying efforts to increase trade and investment between South America and the Arab world.

Brazil, for one, more than tripled its trade with Arab nations during the just ended eight-year presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, exporting $9.4 billion and importing $5.2 billion by last year, according to the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce.

At the Mercosur summit, bloc nations agreed to launch negotiations toward broad free trade and investment agreements with Syria and the Palestinians. Mercosur also concluded talks with Egypt and Morocco to grant reciprocal trade preferences.

Mercosur signed a trade agreement with Egypt in 2007 and ultimately has its eyes on a bigger prize: restarting a stalled free trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which brings together more than 20 Arab nations.

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Associated Press writer Eva Vergara reported this story from Santiago, Chile, and Carla Salazar reported from Lima, Peru. AP writers Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Marco Sibaja in Brasilia, Brazil, contributed to this report.