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Lula looking to rule as centrist, unlikely to harm Israel ties, Brazil scholar says

Latin America expert James Green predicts moderate policies from incoming president, whom half the country’s Jews supported

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula waves to supporters after he defeated incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in a presidential run-off election to become the country's next president, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Oct. 30, 2022 (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula waves to supporters after he defeated incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in a presidential run-off election to become the country's next president, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Oct. 30, 2022 (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the left-wing former president of Brazil who completed his return to politics by beating incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in a close election on Sunday, has shown that he intends to govern as a centrist, and is likely to maintain a balanced policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, according to an expert on the country.

Da Silva, a former union leader who was president of Brazil between 2003 and 2010, garnered 50.9% of all valid votes in the tight Sunday runoff. President Bolsonaro, a fervently Christian right-wing nationalist, received 49.1%.

In a conversation this week with The Times of Israel, James Green — professor of modern Latin American history and Portuguese and Brazilian studies at Brown University, and professor in Latin American studies at Hebrew University — stressed that Lula, as the incoming leader is popularly known, should not be seen as a radical.

In 2009, da Silva warmly welcomed Iranian then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a notorious Holocaust denier whose regime persecuted minorities and critics, for a visit that drew international criticism.

One year later, da Silva became Brazil’s first head of state to visit Israel since Brazilian Emperor Pedro II toured the Holy Land in 1876. However, he refused to visit Theodor Herzl’s grave, which was part of the itinerary for visiting foreign officials in honor of the 150th anniversary of the father of Zionism. Days after, he laid a wreath at Yasser Arafat’s grave in Ramallah. In the final month of his administration, his government officially recognized a Palestinian state.

Following is a transcript of the interview with Green, lightly edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: What do you think the election results mean for the future of Brazil on the international stage?

Green: I think that Bolsonaro has been very isolated, with the exception of several countries, Israel among them. I think that Lula will take a much more aggressive position on reaching out to leaders in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, the United States and South America and reestablish the kind of prominence that he created when he was president between 2003 and 2010.

In the past, there’s been controversy within Israel and Jews in Brazil about Lula’s willingness to meet with Iranian leaders and his statements about Israel. Do you think he would refer back to that or do you think he has other priorities now?

Professor James Green (courtesy)

No, I think he’s in a very different position, and the people who expect a return to the Lula of 2010 are mistaken. He’s got a very broad coalition, ten political parties plus the three other key political parties he’s going to bring into his government coalition to have a majority in Congress, but he doesn’t have a majority in the Senate right now. And in that regard he’s going to be much more moderate on these questions.

He’s going to, I think, clearly continue the policy of supporting a Palestinian state, but I don’t think he’s going to do anything that’s going to change the equidistant policy between two countries that has been the hallmark of Brazilian policy toward Israel and the Middle East. I know that at some point it was tipping toward Arab countries, but I think it’s going to go back to an equidistant policy.

What do you think Israel’s approach should be? Are there areas where they can continue to work together?

The first thing is to not see Lula as a radical, because he’s not, and in this campaign he needed to show his moderation on all levels. The fact that he chose as his vice presidential candidate [Geraldo] Alckmin, a former opponent of his in an election, of the political party that was traditionally the opponent party of [Lula’s] PT party, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, is a very significant measure. The fact that he brought into his campaign two people, one who had been a minister in his government but then broke with PT but was back and campaigning with him, and Simone Tebet in the Brazilian Democratic Movement for president, who got about 5% of the vote then turned around to support his campaign — these are very significant indicators of his moving toward the center.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (foreground) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (background) pray at the Western wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 1, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / POOL / AFP)

I think that he might need, to a certain extent, to show gestures toward the Arab countries of the Middle East and to Palestine, but I think this would be much more symbolic than indicative of any long-term effects it might have on any dynamics between the different countries in the region.

Where does Brazil’s Jewish community stand?

The Jewish community in Brazil, which is a relatively prosperous one, I think voted along class lines or socioeconomic lines, but they voted like their neighbors. So in upper-middle-class neighborhoods where non-Jews voted for Bolsonaro, they did too. And there was a shift in that direction as well.

I think many, many more Jews, people who are secular but still have a Jewish secular identity, supported Lula this time. We won’t really know the results because there’s not really serious polling. But I think whereas perhaps two-thirds of the Jewish community supported Bolsonaro in the last election and one-third supported Lula, I think it would probably split down the middle this time because Bolsonaro went way overboard, and this really caused tremendous alarm among middle-class Jews who value education, culture, reading, certain kinds of ideas that Bolsonaro was obviously against.

Brazilian Jews wave Brazilian and Israeli flags and take part in chants supporting Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on October 27, 2018, ahead of Brazil’s upcoming presidential elections. (Screen capture: Channel 20)

What is the future of Bolsonaro and his supporters who are friendly to Israel? Do you think they have a future that is going to be more influential within Brazil or have they reached their peak?

I think there’s no doubt that evangelical Christians as a sector of society will continue to grow. I don’t see any internal implosion that’s going to change that dynamic. I think if Lula has a very successful government, there’ll be more and more evangelical Christians who will ignore their pastors. That will all depend on how successful he is at turning around the economy, being able to get the resources to carry out the social programs that made him so popular and so successful. And then we’ll see.

Bolsonaro is basically supported by evangelical Christians, but it’s also conservative Catholics and other sectors of society that see Lula as having been corrupt, and therefore want to support Bolsonaro. But if Lula is successful in social and economic policies, a lot of that sentiment will disappear.

JTA contributed to this report.

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