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Brazil's Lula: Row with Israel has 'divided his own base'

Thomas Milz
February 25, 2024

The Brazilian president's comparison of the Gaza conflict with the Holocaust has sparked a diplomatic row. Political scientists say domestic polarization is to blame.

Lula receiving Brazilians and Palestinians returning from the Gaza Strip at Brasilia Air Base
President Lula welcomed Brazilian citizens who were evacuated from Gaza to Brazil in NovemberImage: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

The diplomatic dispute between Israel and Brazil continues to escalate.

After Frederico Meyer, Brazil's ambassador to Israel, was summoned for a meeting with Foreign Minister Israel Katz at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, he was recalled by his home country for consultations. Meanwhile, media reports have said Brazil might expel Israel's ambassador. 

The diplomatic crisis was triggered after the recent controversial statements about the Israel-Hamas war made by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. "What is happening in the Gaza Strip and to the Palestinian people hasn't been seen in any other moment in history. Actually, it did when Hitler decided to kill the Jews," he said on the sidelines of an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa last weekend.

Lula is apparently not prepared to apologize, even after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would otherwise no longer be welcome in his country. With the exception of Netanyahu, Lula has previously gotten along well with Israel's leaders. For decades as opposition leader, and later as Brazilian president from 2003 to 2010, he had shown himself to be a close ally.

Lula looking to score with the far left? 

"Nobody understands it, and it's difficult to explain," Rubens Ricupero, a former diplomat and government minister,  said about the bewilderment among Brazilian foreign policy experts.

People march in support of Israel, on Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro
Demonstrators in Rio de Janeiro showed their solidarity with Israel in OctoberImage: Bruna Prado/AP/picture alliance

One possible explanation is that Lula currently faces a different kind of opposition than he did in his two previous terms in office, said Ricupero. While the moderate center was against him back then, today it's the extreme right working to polarize domestic politics. This could be why Lula is adopting positions further to the left. 

Still, the majority of Brazilians support Israel, said Ricupero. "This position from Lula and some sectors of the left is a clear minority," he said. "Public opinion is generally in favor of Israel, just like the media. I haven't seen anyone defending Lula's comparison."

This has created issues for Lula, said political scientist Mauricio Santoro of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies of the Brazilian Navy, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro. "He may be able to mobilize parts of his left-wing electorate, which is very critical of Israel. But in this case, he has divided his own base."

A woman waves a Palestinian flag during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Sao Paulo
Some Brazilians have also showed their support for PalestiniansImage: Amanda Perobelli/REUTERS

In Addis Ababa, Lula once again fell victim to his passion for speaking freely, said Santoro. "The president likes to improvise freely in speeches or interviews. But his statements on foreign policy pose problems for diplomacy," he said.

Marcos Azambuja, a former ambassador to Argentina and France, also cited the dangers of improvisation. Lula is spontaneous, though his informal approach to foreign policy is generally positive, he said.

"This geniality, the human warmth, the desire to communicate is often helpful. But, of course, there can also be verbal slip-ups," he said.

Foreign policy blunders not new for Lula

It's also nothing new for Lula and his Workers' Party to make foreign policy blunders, said Roberto Abdenur, former Brazilian ambassador to China and Germany. He recalled that Lula and his then Foreign Minister Celso Amorim tried to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran on their own initiative in 2010. 

BRICS-Gipfel 2023: Virtuelles Treffen zur Diskussion des Israel-Hamas-Konflikts - Johannesburg
Lula (left) regularly meets with the other leaders of the BRICS countries — Russia, India, China and South AfricaImage: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP

Abdenur condemned Lula's Hitler-Gaza comparison. "This is completely inappropriate and Israel's harsh reaction is completely understandable," he said, before adding that Israel had also contributed to diplomatic tensions.

"Netanyahu, for his part, has chosen very harsh words. And the Israeli foreign minister is also sticking to his line of using inappropriate insults," said Abdenur.

Nevertheless, Lula's criticism of Israel's harsh actions in Gaza is right at its core, he added. "I have no doubt that war crimes and human rights crimes are being committed there. But it is too early to say whether it is genocide. That is currently in the hands of the International Criminal Court."

Foreign Ministry doing damage control

Feliciano de Sa Guimaraes, a foreign policy expert at the University of Sao Paulo, warned against further escalation between the two countries.

Lula returns to a divided Brazil

"There is an atmosphere in the Brazilian presidential palace that breeds such belligerent statements," he said, adding that Lula's foreign policy team does not represent his broad government base. Lula also only listens to one side, "the left-wing, anti-American voices who very aggressively speak of a radical change in the global order." But diplomacy should not be tied to ideological polarization, he said.

Now it's a matter of damage control, said Rubens Barbosa, former ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. "This is a big challenge for the Foreign Ministry. It's not just about limiting the damage to Brazil, but also about regaining influence and agency in formulating and implementing foreign policy."

Polarization that reinforces stereotypes and ideological radicalization must be avoided, said political scientist Santoro. "It is now fundamental to create bridges and channels of communication between countries of the Global North and the Global South."

"The world is already filled with enough hate," he added.

This article was originally written in Portuguese.