If the Bush administration was left a little uneasy by South America's rapidly growing ties with China, Russia and "Old Europe" last year, it better get ready for the next blow: a first-of-its-kind South American-Arab League summit to be held in Brazil.
Judging from a 28-page draft final declaration of the summit that I obtained this week, it's no surprise that U.S. officials and pro-Israel groups are concerned. Unless foreign ministers from South America and Arab countries change some of the document's language, it will amount to a tacit statement of support for Middle Eastern terrorist groups.
The summit of South American and Arab countries, to be held May 10-11 in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital, was convened by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The Brazilian leader has already expanded his country's ties with Russia, China, India and other emerging powers as part of an effort to diversify his country's exports, offset U.S. influence in world affairs and get support for Brazil's campaign for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The meeting was supposed to focus on promoting commercial and cultural ties. Nothing wrong with that; there are an estimated 17 million Arabs and Arab descendants in Latin America, according to the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, and they could help build trade and cultural bridges with the Arab world.
But Arab countries have argued the summit will not be taken seriously if it shuns political issues, and South American countries have agreed to include a political section, organizers say.
According to a copy of the draft declaration in my hands, there are several Arab-proposed paragraphs that would strongly condemn Israel and tacitly endorse violent Arab groups that are on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
In the document's section entitled Strengthening Biregional and Multilateral Relations, for instance, paragraph 2.9 calls for a U.N. conference "to study" terrorism and "define the terrorist crime, and distinguish terrorism from the legitimate right of peoples to resist foreign occupation with a view to reach national independence."
What? "Study" terrorism? "Distinguish" it from "the legitimate right of peoples to resist foreign occupation"? By suggesting that, the summit declaration would tacitly justify Middle Eastern groups such as Hamas -- which is on the State Department terrorist list -- and their practices of blowing up buses filled with Israeli schoolchildren in the name of "resisting foreign occupation."
That would take us back to the stone ages.
There is nothing to "study," "define" or "distinguish" about terrorism. Terrorism is killing innocent people for political purposes, and that's a crime. Period.
Asked about it, a U.S. State Department official told me Wednesday that while a trade-, development- and culture-focused summit could be very productive, "we are withholding comment" on the draft's language on terrorism until the final declaration is issued.
"But there is no justification for terrorism, and we expect the responsible leaders of South America and the Arab world to affirm this fundamental principle," the U.S. official added.
Brazil's undersecretary for political affairs, Ambassador Vera Pedrosa, told me in a telephone interview not to panic over the draft, which she said should have never gotten out of the negotiators' hands.
"It's a very early draft, which can be profoundly altered between now and the end of the process," she said. And a well-placed official from Argentina, a country that has suffered two terrorist attacks on Jewish institutions, told me his country will not go along with the terrorism language.
Still, Venezuela is likely to support the Arab-proposed paragraphs, and other South American countries may accept an only somewhat lighter version of them.
My conclusion: South American countries are playing with fire by extending the focus of the summit to Middle Eastern politics. That is bound to grab headlines, add tension to U.S.-South American ties and, what may be worse, introduce the Middle East's tensions into a hemisphere where Jews and Arabs have lived in harmony for centuries. That's the last thing South America needs.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.