Can Lula fix the Middle East?

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Brazil’s President Lula is a lucky man. With an approval rating north of 80% in his seventh year in office and a booming economy, Lula has the luxury to gloss over unpopular but necessary projects such as tax and pension reform, and to focus on the icing on the cake for the remainder of his presidency, which ends in December 2010. Brazil’s President tours the country, inaugurates projects, promotes his chief of staff and chosen heiress, Dilma Rousseff, and seeks a more important role for Brazil in the world.

Brazil now lends money to the IMF, pushes for more voting power in the World Bank, and attempts to assume regional leadership in South America. Lula also seeks to institutionalize South-South relations, for example through IBSA and the BRIC summit. Finally, Brazil aims to play an leading role in the G20 and hopes to obtain a permanent seat in the UN Security Council soon.

What’s next? Looking at Lula’s recent guest list, it seems as if he is hoping to play a leading role in the Middle East Peace Process. Within a span of 10 days, Shimon Peres (13/11), Mahmoud Abbas (20/11) and Mahmound Ahmadinejad (23/11) visited Brasília- too close together to be a coincidence. Can Lula convince them to sit down and talk? At a first glance, Brazil’s chance to get the conversation started seems very small. Despite the recent hype, Brazil is still a second-class player in geopolitics. Making up less than 2% of global GDP, it has a small military force, and it is the only BRIC member that does not possess nuclear arms.

A more careful analysis, however, shows that Brazil may indeed have a shot at helping to get the conversation started. It is one of the few countries on earth that is on good terms with Israel, Palestine and Iran. Brazil’s lack of strategic interest in the Middle East may help it be more objective, and reduce suspicions by any party involved that Brazil has a hidden agenda. While 5% of Brazilians are of Arab descent, they do not constitute a lobby that may influence Brazil’s impartiality. Neither do Brazil’s 100,000 Jews, some of which are prominent public intellectuals, have a strong lobby. Also, Brazil has distanced itself sufficiently from the United States, so it cannot be accused of being Obama’s agent, which would most likely antagonize Iran. Finally, Brazil’s President is a skilled diplomat who, despite regular gaffes, is known to get along with pretty much anyone at the same time. While Lula’s failure to condemn human rights abuses and rigged elections abroad is notorious, he may be just the right guy to get Iran and Israel sit around one table.

It is, after all, a risk-free strategy for Lula. Failure would be unlikely to affect his legacy. The conflict between Israel and Palestine highly complex, and it would be foolish for Lula to believe that he could single-handedly fix the Middle East. Yet, convincing Israeli, Palestinian and Iranian government officials to even sit down and discuss in Brasília would be quite a feat, and it would boost Brazil’s diplomatic GDP significantly and strengthen Brazil’s rightful quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Finally, Brazil’s insertion in the Middle East Conflict as a credible mediator would suit Lula’s personal ambition and bring him closer to the realization of his next objective: To succeed Ban-Ki moon as United Nations Secretary General. There may well be more luck for Lula in store.

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Picture credit: AP/Vahid Salemi