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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

What Brazil's far right president-elect has in mind for the Middle East

Jair Bolsonaro calls refugees 'scoundrels' and has opposed Palestinian statehood since the 1990s

Supporters of far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, celebrate  his win in Rio de Janeiro on October 28, 2018. AFP
Supporters of far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, celebrate  his win in Rio de Janeiro on October 28, 2018. AFP

Brazil’s new president is a far-right former army captain who wants to recognise Jerusalem as Israeli capital, pull back on recognising Palestine’s right to exist and pull his country out of the Paris Accord for the environment. Jair Bolsonaro, who has never been friendly towards Arab states in his 28 years as congressman, will lead Latin America’s biggest nation after a strong victory on Sunday.

President-elect Bolsonaro, who was elected with almost 58 million votes, likes to compare himself to his North American counterpart Donald Trump. But his style is closer to Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte, who recently said his only crime is killing criminals, not stealing money from the people. Mr Bolsonaro has in the past stated that he is in favour of death squads, torture and extrajudicial killings.

He was elected on an anti-corruption and pro-gun platform, who after nearly three decades in Congress portrayed himself as a political outsider amid widespread anger at establishment parties.

Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a runoff election, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil October 28, 2018. Reuters
Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a runoff election, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil October 28, 2018. Reuters

Mr Bolsonaro has called refugees “scoundrels” and “scum of the earth” and has been an opponent of Palestinian statehood since the 1990s. After he was stabbed in the stomach by a fanatical opponent at a campaign rally on September 6, his campaign suggested the culprit had been paid by “Pan-Arabist groups”.

His son Eduardo Bolsonaro, who often operates as his spokesman, suggested in January that “Islam” would not be angered if his father moves the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He did not provide details on how friction would be avoided. “If they get upset we will find a democratic alternative,” he said.

Mr Bolsonaro is Roman Catholic, and his victory on Sunday was over left-leaning Fernando Haddad, the grandson of a Catholic orthodox priest from Lebanon.

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The far-right leader has so far provided little substantive foreign policy detail of what he plans during his four-year term. Likewise, his domestic policy plan is light on detail, leaning heavily on his statements as congressman and his comments in daily social media broadcasts.

Those tirades were sufficient for supporters, who placed faith in him to advance a far-right agenda.

Many Bolsonaro supporters waved Israeli flags during nationwide celebrations, including at one gathering of thousands in Brazil’s financial capital Sao Paulo on Sunday night. “We shouldn’t side with terrorists, we should side with democracies,” said engineer Carlos Alves, 65. “All these communist organisations that invade land and property in Brazil are as terrorist as Hezbollah, we should crack down on them. Israel is our friend, we are on the side of patriots that defend their land, not with invaders. This isn’t about trade, it is about values.”

But if the president-elect carries forward his proposed Israel embassy move, Brazil’s $13 billion a year meat trade with Arab countries could be at risk, some have warned.

Former Finance Minister Rubens Ricupero told The National that investors looking to Latin America might decide to overlook Brazil because of Mr Bolsonaro’s election. Not only because of his insults to Arabs and other minorities but because his administration is likely to be staffed with inexperienced rookies.

“The embassy case would mean destroying a pillar of Brazilian diplomacy, a foundation of non-interference. Brazil says since 1948 that the solution is two states. Reversing that course could have a high cost for trade,” he said. “If Bolsonaro achieves what we wants, only a few leaders will be willing to be photographed next to him. In the Middle East, none.”

In his first addresses as president-elect from his house in Rio de Janeiro, Mr Bolsonaro said his foreign policy “will not be bound by ideology.” During his campaign though he outlined a very ideological relationship he plans to have with Western style democracies led mostly by conservatives, like the United States and Italy.

Any hint of leftism is rejected by Mr Bolsonaro, which could affect his relationship with China. Mr Bolsonaro visited Taiwan earlier this year, which angered Beijing, which sees the island as a breakaway province.

“I hope he moderates, but if Bolsonaro doesn’t make amends with China he will lose Brazil’s biggest foreign investor,” said Oliver Stuenkel, International Relations professor at Fundacao Getulio Vargas in Sao Paulo. “Imagine if next year President Xi Jingping decides not to come to a summit with Brics in Brazil, planned for November. If he does that, Brazil will be quickly singled out. And that includes isolation from Arab countries too, obviously.”

After Mr Bolsonaro showed openness to local fascists, many Brazilian Jewish voters distanced themselves from the former army captain, and many believe his apparent conversion to Zionism is not to be believed in.