Palestinians and their supporters are justified in celebrating the victory of the leftist candidate Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in the runoff for Brazil’s presidential election on 30 October. However, Lula’s victory is incomplete and could ultimately prove ineffectual if not followed by a concrete and centralised Palestinian strategy.
Lula has proven, through the years, to be a genuine friend of Palestine and Arab countries. In 2010, for example, as president he spoke of his dream of seeing “an independent and free Palestine” during a visit to the occupied West Bank. He also refused to visit the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of Israel’s Zionist ideology. Instead, he visited Yasser Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah. Later that year, Lula’s government recognised Palestine as an independent state within the 1967 borders.
His rival, soon-to-be former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, is an ideologue who has repeatedly professed his love for Israel. He pledged in November 2018 to follow the US government’s lead in relocating his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Unlike other pro-Israel world leaders, Bolsonaro’s affection is ideological and unconditional. In a 2018 interview with Israel Hayom newspaper, he said: “Israel is a sovereign state… If you decide what your capital is, we will follow you. You decide on the capital of Israel, not other people.”
In a final and desperate move to win the support of Brazil’s Evangelical Christians at the polls, Bolsonaro’s wife Michelle went to cast her vote in a t-shirt emblazoned with the Israeli flag. That gesture alone speaks volumes about Bolsonaro’s skewed agenda, which is symptomatic of many of Israel’s supporters around the world.
Lula’s victory and Bolsonaro’s defeat are themselves a testament to a changing world, where loyalty to Israel is no longer a guarantor of electoral victory. This was as true in the case of Donald Trump in the US as it was for Liz Truss in the UK, Scott Morrison in Australia and now Bolsonaro in Brazil. The Israelis seem to have accepted such a new, albeit unpleasant (for them) reality.
Interviewed by the Times of Israel, Brazilian scholar James Green explained that it behoves Israel to revise its view of Lula. The president-elect, said Green, should not be seen “as a radical, because he’s not, and in this campaign, he needed to show his moderation on all levels.”
The willingness to engage with Lula, albeit begrudgingly, was also expressed by Claudio Lottenberg, president of the Brazilian Israelite Confederation, the country’s largest pro-Israel Jewish organisation. On 31 October, he issued a note expressing the group’s “permanent readiness for constructive and democratic dialogue” with Lula.
Brazil’s political transformation is sure to benefit the Palestinians, even though Lula’s ideologically diverse coalition makes it more difficult for him to explore the same radical political spaces in which he ventured during his previous presidency between 2003 and 2011.
It is also worth noting that Bolsonaro was a relatively important player in the conservative, far-right global political camp that attempted to legitimise the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Following the recent reversal by the Australian government of a 2018 decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Bolsonaro’s defeat is another nail in the coffin of Trump’s “Deal of the Century”.
Geopolitical changes are, of course, critical to the future of Palestine and the Palestinian struggle, but without a responsible Palestinian leadership that can navigate opportunities and confront growing challenges, Lula’s victory can, at best, be seen as symbolic.
Palestinians are aware of the massive changes underway regionally and globally. That has been demonstrated through the repeated visits by Palestinian political groups to Moscow, and the meeting between the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Kazakhstan last month. That meeting has prompted Washington’s ire, but the US is incapable of lashing out in any meaningful way in case it pushes the Palestinians firmly into the Russian camp.
Palestine is also becoming, once again, regionally relevant, if not central to Arab affairs, as indicated at the Arab League Summit in Algeria last week.
However, for all these dynamic changes to be translated into tangible political achievements, Palestinians cannot proceed as fragmented entities. There are three major political trends that define Palestinian political action globally: the Palestinian Authority, which has political legitimacy as the legal representative of the Palestinian people, but no actual legitimacy among Palestinians, nor a forward-thinking strategy; Palestinian political groups which are ideologically diverse and, arguably, more popular among Palestinians, but lack international recognition; and the Palestinian-led international solidarity campaign, which has gained much ground as the voice of Palestinian civil society worldwide. While the latter has moral legitimacy, it is not legally representative of Palestinians. Moreover, without a unified political strategy, civil society achievements cannot be translated, at least not yet, into solid political gains.
So, while all Palestinians are celebrating Lula’s victory as a victory for Palestine, there is no single entity that can, alone, harness the political and geopolitical change underway in Brazil as a building block in the collective struggle for justice and freedom in Palestine. Until Palestinians revamp their problematic leadership or formulate a new kind of leadership through grassroots mobilisation in Palestine itself, they should at least attempt to liberate their foreign policy agenda from factionalism, which is defined by a self-centred approach to politics.
A starting point might be the creation of a transitional, non-factional political body of professional Palestinians with an advisory role agreed upon by all political groups. This can take place through the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which has been marginalised by the PA for decades. This entity’s main role can be confined to surveying the numerous opportunities available on the world stage and to allow, however nominally, Palestinians to speak in one united voice. For this to happen, of course, major Palestinian groups would need to have enough goodwill to put their differences aside for the greater good. Although that will not be easy, it is, nonetheless, possible.