Brazil, Lula, and the Question of Palestine
November 17 2022

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — popularly known as “Lula” — will be inaugurated as President of Brazil on January 1, 2023. At the end of October, he defeated incumbent President Jair Messias Bolsonaro ​by a narrow margin, ending four years of right-wing rule. Lula will now return to the Palácio da Alvorada in Brasilia for the third time, after serving two terms from 2003 until 2011. 

Brazil’s Palestinian community celebrated Lula’s victory. During the campaign, he donned a keffiyeh while meeting community leaders: 

"Palestinians deserve our full attention and solidarity," Lula said, while also voicing support for a “free and sovereign Palestinian state.” He vowed to reset Brazilian foreign policy so as to better support the right of sovereign people to defend themselves from human rights abuses. 

During the Bolsonaro administration, Brazilian foreign policy was unconditionally aligned with supporting Israel’s apartheid regime. To appease his Evangelical Christian base, secure weapons contracts, and curry favor with former president Donald Trump and other right-wing leaders, Bolsonaro eagerly promoted his relationship with Netanyahu. 

At one point, Bolsonaro — a former army captain and fringe right-wing congressman — even attempted to copy Trump and move the Brazilian embassy in Occupied Palestine from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, he stopped short when several Arab League members threatened to cut beef and chicken exports from Brazil. While Latin America’s largest economy runs a trade deficit of several hundred million dollars with the Israeli regime, Arab countries buy more than $7 billion in food exports from Brazilian farmers every year. 

Despite his early stumble on the embassy move, Bolsonaro still bolstered relations with the apartheid state. He had his Ministry of Defense sign new contracts for unnecessary weaponry, to be provided by Israeli arms manufacturers, while organizing joint drills for Brazilian soldiers and the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). The pro-gun president and his supporters have also encouraged cooperation between Brazilian shooting clubs — popular gathering spots for Bolsonaro supporters — and Israeli gun factories.

In more symbolic nods to the Occupation of Palestine, Bolsonaro has often waved Israeli flags at his rallies. During election day on October 30, his wife, First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro, wore a t-shirt with an Israeli flag print while voting before the cameras. While their support meant little for the Israeli regime — which has far stronger benefactors in DC, London, Paris and Abu Dhabi — it meant a lot to Evangelical Brazilians, who make up about a third of the country’s population and voted for Bolsonaro over Lula by a 30-point margin. The majority of Evangelical Christians support Israel, as they consider the existence of an Israeli state to be key to the biblical prophecy of the return of Jesus Christ. 

It’s important to note that, despite Bolsonaro’s defeat, Brazil under Lula will not necessarily be a deterrence to Israeli apartheid. 

At face value, Lula — who leads Brazil’s left-leaning Workers’ Party — is a friend of Palestine. During a visit to the West Bank in 2010, Lula said that he hoped for "an independent and free Palestine.” He also had Brazil recognize Palestine as an independent state. But professing to be a friend of Paelstine is not the same as combatting Israeli apartheid. 

During his previous tenure as president (2003-11) Lula signed major arms deals and security cooperation pacts between the Brazilian security forces and the IOF. He met with Netanyahu on several occasions, and even spoke before the Israeli Knesset, proclaiming himself to be “a friend of Israel.” Like outgoing President Bolsonaro, he maintains cordial relations with the Israel lobby in Brazil. 

While Bolsonaro was unabashedly pro-Israel, he couldn’t do much to actively contribute to the repression of the Palestinian people. Few Latin America or world leaders supported him — aside from Trump, Viktor Orbán and Netanyahu, he had few allies at all. The most he could do to express his opposition to Palestine was to order that his UN delegation vote down motions against Israeli apartheid. Lula, on the other hand, is deeply respected by the governments of China, India, South Africa and the United States. He won Brazil the 2016 Olympics and pushed major trade deals between Brasilia and other developing countries. Despite having spent 500 days in prison for corruption charges, he managed to win a third term as president at the age of 77, largely due to the poverty reduction and economic growth that he oversaw during his previous administration, which garnered international praise

Simply put, Lula has charisma. When he speaks, people listen. But his greatest strength is also his greatest flaw: he is a negotiator, not an idealist. While this has helped him bring together different segments of Brazilian society, it is unclear if he would ever risk supporting human rights in Palestine and breaking with the Israeli regime, as such moves would put him at odds with other major powers. 

Time will tell if Brazil’s next president will do more than wear a keffiyeh and express solidarity with the Palestinian people. With the global media and nearly all world leaders willing to give him a listen, there is a narrow window for him to turn words into action. 
Lula has promised that this new term will be his last — hopefully, he will make it count. 

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