Could Brazil be a player in the Middle East process?

It seems that the country and its president have embarked on an active diplomatic offensive in the ME, centered around Iran's int'l position.

March 18, 2010 00:18
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Brazilian Pr

bibi lula bear hug 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is the first Brazilian head of state to visit the Holy Land since Emperor Dom Pedro II in 1876, a great event indeed for both Israel and Brazil. He is also visiting the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Since early 2009, it seems that Brazil, and President da Silva personally, have taken on an active diplomatic offensive in the Middle East, centered around Iran’s international position.

After a failed attempt at a visit in May, due to elections constraints, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to visit Brazil in November 2009.

Despite American, and even internal, criticism concerning Brazil’s lenient view on Iran’s nuclear program as well as the disputed presidential elections, da Silva has warmly welcomed Ahmadinejad,
claiming that the two countries can cooperate to enhance a new economic order.

In the face of Iran’s successful push in Latin America, the Israeli diplomatic corps has finally rediscovered the continent. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Brazil in July 2009, followed by President Shimon Peres in November, the first visit of an Israeli President in 40 years. Coincidence or not, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was also invited in November.

It seems therefore that da Silva has taken these opportunities to involve Brazil in the Middle East process and to perhaps act as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as US-Iranian

THIS DIPLOMATIC push fits Brazil’s enhanced regional and global standing, its membership in the BRIC Club (Brazil, Russia, India and China), its desire for a permanent seat on the Security Council and da Silva’s personal ambition to play a more international role.

This move was facilitated by US President Barack Obama’s new strategy of openness toward Iran and the Muslim world. Da Silva was the first Latin American leader hosted by Obama, who hailed him as “the most popular politician on earth.”

On the other hand, da Silva’s relationship with Iran has been described as conflicting with Western policies aimed at isolating and sanctioning Iran for its controversial nuclear project. Brazil has, by and large, supported the Iranian nuclear program, and the president considers Iran to have the right to develop peaceful nuclear technology, provided that it does not violate international regulations.

During the visits of Middle Eastern politicians in Brazil, da Silva has stressed the importance of searching for peace in the region by means of dialogue rather than isolation, and showed his determination to engage in Middle East affairs.

“The time has come to bring into the arena players who will be able to put forward new ideas. Those players must have access to all levels of the conflict: in Israel, in Palestine, in Iran, in Syria, in Jordan and in many other countries that are associated with this conflict” da Silva told Haaretz just before his arrival.

WHAT THEN are the issues at stake and what are the chances Brazil can play a major role in the negotiating process in the region?

Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mahmoud Abbas declared during his visit: “With respect to you, President Lula, we would like you to have a role [in the Middle East], and you’re ready for it. Brazil, as an important country, and President Lula, as a respected leader, can play an important role. There are many ways of taking action for peace.”

Interestingly, Abbas’s main request to da Silva was to convince Iran to put an end to its support for the radical Palestinian movement Hamas.

“Iran supports Hamas with money and Hamas’ decisions are in the hands of Teheran,” he said in an interview before his arrival.

Days ago, Mahmoud Abbas blamed Iran for thwarting reconciliation between his Fatah faction and Hamas. Iran doesn’t want Hamas to sign the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation document, Abbas said, and argued that the Palestinians should be “free from Iranian tutelage.”

It could inferred from this that Abbas will once again ask President Lula to intervene with the Iranians during his May visit to Teheran.

Abbas will also probably prepare the ground for future support from Brazil should negotiations with Israel fail and the Palestinian Authority decide to make a unilateral declaration of Palestinian sovereignty.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Abbas, the Israeli leaders as well as some skeptic observers, believe that Brazil has a rather “modest diplomatic realm in the region.”

They are betting mainly on US mediation and are already overwhelmed by the meddling of some already major players, like Egypt, Europeans and other well-wishers worldwide.

THE ISRAELI government would have most probably insisted in its dialogue with the Brazilian president on a more assertive stance on the Iranian nuclear issue, seen as an existential threat to the Jewish state, especially against the backdrop of Brazil’s decision not to support the proposed sanctions against Iran at the Security Council and da Silva’s recent declaration that “there are other interests in the Middle East which must be represented ... Iran is part of all this, and therefore someone must talk to them.”

At least on the issue of Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and threats to destroy Israel, da Silva has presented a clear stance: “It’s impossible to imagine someone saying there wasn’t a Holocaust or to
accept someone saying they’re going to do away with another country,” da Silva said before his departure to the region.

It seems Ahmadinejad hadn’t heard Lula; he declared two days later that Israel “had reached the end of its road” and was no longer “useful for its masters [the West]” who had “gathered the most criminal people in the world and stationed them in our region with lies and fabricated scenarios.”

Thus, ironically, on the political and diplomatic side, da Silva’s visit to Israel, the PA and Jordan will be focused mostly on the Iranian issue.

Hopefully, the Brazilian president will understand that his country’s stance is extremely important in the global arena, and that he should strive to help stop the nuclearization of the radical Iranian regime: for the sake of the stability of our beleaguered region, the advance of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the internal reconciliation between Palestinian themselves and for the well-being of the oppressed Iranian people.

The writer is Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, Israel. This article first appeared in the Brazilian daily O Estado do Sao Paolo on Wednesday.

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