BRASILIA - Clara Ant is perhaps the most surprising person in the inner circle of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who Monday begins the first visit to Israel by a Brazilian president. An architect and daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Ant is a former Trotskyite who speaks nearly fluent Hebrew and is charming and full of humor. She serves as Lula's close adviser. Adviser for what? "What not?" she responds with a laugh.
Ant is responsible for following up presidential decisions - seeing to it that they are properly implemented. She and Lula have worked closely for 33 years. Among other issues, they joined forces to oppose the military government in Brazil, which was in power from 1964 to 1985. She was working with the architects' union at the time, and he led the metalworkers' union.
In the view of some members of the Brazilian Jewish community, she is like Esther in the court of King Ahasuerus, helping to sweeten the bitter pill of Lula's efforts to forge close relations with the Arab and Muslim world - notably, with Iran. The country's Jews "make pilgrimages" to present their problems to her; she helps them to whatever extent she can. Others see her as being captive to the rare good graces of the king, and note that she is "liable to sell out Israel's interests" if they conflict with the interests of the Brazilian leader.
While about 80 percent of Brazilians support Lula - the most popular president in the country's history - the Jews there are totally opposite in their views: While they profess to have "very close relations" with him, according to most assessments, only about 20 percent of them support him and his party.
Ant almost certainly sees this as a lack of gratitude. In her opinion, the situation of Brazil's 120,000 Jews has never been better and relations between Brazil and Israel have never been stronger. She is not prepared to talk about the dialogue with Iran in the context of the Holocaust or her family, which perished in it. It's not fair to do that, she explains. "Maybe Lula is altogether correct in his approach? Give him a chance at least," she says.
And what is that approach? From two interviews with Haaretz - one with the president himself and the other with Marco Aurelio Garcia, his foreign affairs adviser, who is thought to "pull the strings on policy toward Iran" - the components of it are apparent: Dialogue with Iran is designed to help head off radicalization of the regime in Tehran, to ensure a strong Iranian commitment not to develop nuclear weapons and to enable Brazil to monitor that commitment from up close. Furthermore, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not bilateral but regional, in Brazil's view, and it has global implications. Iran is part of the region and its relations with Hamas hold the potential to do real damage. Iran must therefore be part of the solution.
Experience in Latin America, including Cuba, proves that the use of sanctions is not effective. Sanctions constitute a first step on the path to a military offensive, which is akin to adding fuel to the fire. We know that scenario from Iraq, they say, adding that then, too, doubtful reports were presented that spurred an insane war and created an even worse situation.
Brazil is establishing its role as a regional and global power. It is on the way to becoming the world's fifth-largest economic power, and will be serving on the United Nations Security Council for the next two years. Lula himself is an important and highly regarded player both in Brazil and internationally. His policy toward Iran is designed to afford him a position of influence against the United States and the West.
Paradoxically, the president is seen in the same light with respect to his stronger ties with Israel. In October he will be stepping down, and he is looking to play an "appropriate" international role. According to one assessment, Lula hopes to replace Tony Blair as the representative to the Middle East of the Quartet (the U.S., UN, European Union and Russia). Israel cannot agree with his positions, but it also cannot ignore them.
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