Brazil: Lula struggles to shift Israel-Palestine policy after Bolsonaro

Eman Abusidu

Middle East Eye  /  September 3, 2023

Lula’s tenure will not foster the policy shift needed to change Palestinian fortunes after four years of Bolsonaro, analysts and experts say.

Brazil’s President Lula Da Silva never promised a wholesale reversal of his predecessor’s approach to the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, but eight months into his term he’s left many of Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-Israel policies in place, leading to frustration in Brasilia and the occupied Palestinian territories.

During his four years in office, Bolsanaro broke with long-standing positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He offered full-throated support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line agenda, failed to meet with the Palestinian leadership, and reiterated his plans to move the country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Lula has made clear he supports a two-state solution to the intransigent conflict, but has struggled on several fronts to meaningfully separate his approach from Bolsanaro’s.

Earlier this year, the 77-year-old leftist won praise from pro-Palestine activists after he criticised the international community’s failure to create a Palestinian state during a speech at the UN Security Council.

He also won plaudits for condemning illegal Israeli settlement expansion and his decision to fire the controversial ambassador to Israel, Gerson Menandro Garcia de Freitas.

But that dismissal was part of a larger shake-up which also saw the removal of the country’s ambassador to the United States and the consul general to New York. 

Analysts and activists say that since then, not much in the form of policy has changed.

Brazilian political analyst Marcos Tenorio told Middle East Eye that Lula wanted to send a message to key stakeholders that the Brazilian government had changed and would now act according to the country’s global and regional interests. 

“It is Brazil that dictates what its foreign policy and relations with other sovereign nations will be,” he said, suggesting that Brasilia would no longer try to appease Washington or a small section of Brazilians.

“Brazil has returned to the international scene in a sovereign and proud manner,” Tenorio said. “President Lula has positioned himself in favour of a multipolar world and criticized the postures of European and US imperialism that suffocates the economies of emerging countries.”

‘Cancel all agreements’

Bolsonaro, who was baptized in the Jordan River in 2016, would routinely appease his right-wing base and evangelical Christians, despite consternation from much of the international community and the Palestinians. 

After he lost last year’s election against Lula, thousands of his supporters invaded the country’s supreme court, presidential palace, congress, and ministries’ buildings in scenes reminiscent of the US Capitol riots.

Soraya Misleh, a prominent Palestinian activist and member of Brazil’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, said while it was welcome that Lula’s administration was condemning the construction of illegal Israeli settlements, it needed to go beyond issuing mere statements.

“Lula should immediately cancel all agreements with Israel, especially military agreements,” Misleh told MEE.

According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Brazil purchases around 8.7 percent of its major conventional weapons from Israel.

In recent years, purchases have included Rafael Spike LR anti-guided missiles, Heron 1-drones, Tavor rifles and over-the-horizon coastal surveillance radar systems.

“Brazil is the fifth largest importer of Israeli military technology,” Misleh said. “These weapons are tested on Palestinian bodies.”

According to a tally by MEE, at least 217 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces this year, including 38 children. 

A total of 181 people have died in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, making 2023 one of the bloodiest years in the occupied territory. Another 36 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip.

The Iranian issue

Arlene Elizabeth Clemesha, a professor of Arab History at the University of Sao Paulo, said she wasn’t convinced by Lula’s rhetoric, and expected relations with Israel to continue as before as there was significant economic, technological, and weapons cooperation between the two nations.

In June, Brazil and Israel signed a letter of intent for the exchange of technologies and innovations at national ports and airports, Clemesha told MEE.

“Lula has shown support for Palestine in many ways but this hasn’t translated into policy, as agreements with Israel are still in place,” she said.

“Lula needs to take action inside his government and Brazilian society in order to make a breakthrough in Brazil’s position towards Israel.”

One area, however, where Lula is likely to irk Israel is Iran.

Last week, Lula met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on the sidelines of the Brics summit, following the announcement that Tehran would be one of the bloc’s newest members.

During that meeting, Raisi said he was looking to expand trade relations with Brazil from where they currently stand – at around $4.3bn – which is the highest with any Middle Eastern nation.

Lula had already raised eyebrows in the US and Europe when he flatly refused to send weapons to Ukraine and then allowed Iranian warships to dock in Rio de Janeiro after initially denying them permission.

Tenorio said that Lula was reactivating Brazil’s decades-old principle of non-alignment to carve out a policy that best safeguards its interests in an increasingly multi-polar world.

“I believe that the dilemma of the docking of Iranian ships in February was still in the transition period between the fascist government of Jair Bolsonaro and the new government. I do not believe that there was a deliberate move by President Lula’s government to create any embarrassment for bilateral relations between Brazil and Iran,” he said.

According to Tenorio, relations between Brazil and Israel are likely to return to the position they were in during Lula’s first two administrations, between 2003-2010, where Brazil prioritized trade over political and ideological disagreements.

“Brazil played an important role in the negotiations of the agreement that allowed Iran to develop its nuclear potential before that agreement was subsequently breached by the United States,” he added.

Eman Abusidu is a Palestinian-Brazilian journalist and writer