The State of Israel has lost an ally in Brazil after President Jair Bolsonaro, an over-the-top Israeli supporter, was defeated by former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva earlier this week. Da Silva had nurtured ties between Brazil and Iran while in office and publicly supported the Palestinian Authority. Regularly referred to as just “Lula,” he was the first Brazilian president to visit Israel in 2010, but the controversial trip will always be viewed through a negative lens by Israelis.
2010 marked the 150th anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s birth. Because Herzl was a Zionist visionary, Israel’s Foreign Ministry included a visit to Herzl’s grave as the protocol for all foreign dignitaries visiting Israel. Weeks before da Silva’s visit, then vice president Joe Biden laid a wreath on Herzl’s grave.
After the Brazilian president refused to do the same, Avigdor Liberman, the Israeli foreign minister at the time, used the breach of protocol to deny meeting with da Silva. Following the incident, da Silva wore a keffiyeh around his shoulders while laying a wreath at the tomb of Yasser Arafat, the Israeli arch-terrorist and Palestinian leader.
Current media reports are saying that da Silva also wanted to meet with Hamas officials during the visit to Israel, believing that reconciliation and peace would be encouraged. No such meetings were reported to happen. Later in 2010, a Palestinian state was recognized by Brazil, creating a wave of similar recognitions throughout South American countries.
Da Silva still publicly supports unilateral Palestinian statehood. His support includes the Ramallah bid to become a member of the United Nations. Last June, da Silva again wore a keffiyeh to an event, saying, “Palestinians deserve our full attention and solidarity.”
Brazil’s president-elect also had significant Iranian ties during his previous term, hosting homophobic, antisemitic former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and then making a trip to Tehran. He was against Iranian sanctions related to its nuclear program.
When an Iranian woman committed adultery and was sentenced to execution, da Silva said, “I need to respect the laws of a foreign country. If my friendship with the president of Iran and the respect that I have for him is worth something, if this woman has become a nuisance, we will receive her in Brazil.”
Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, who was also Lula’s chief of staff, continued the close ties between the two after she took office. Once Rousseff became president, she appointed Lula to the office of the chief of staff. In 2014, Rousseff recalled the ambassador of Brazil to Israel to protest Operation Protective Edge. She also rejected Dani Dayan, Israel’s selection to be ambassador to Brazil, because he lived on the wrong side of the green line. In addition, while Rousseff was in office, an embassy was opened in Brasilia by the Palestinians.
Just as around a third of Brazil’s population, Bolsonaro is an Evangelical Christian. He never hid his support for Israel from the public. Just last week, on Brazil’s election day, his wife wore a shirt displaying an Israeli flag.
While he was prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu attended Bolsonaro’s inauguration. The two of them even visited a synagogue together. Bolsonaro visited Israel three months later, visiting the Western Wall with Netanyahu instead of taking a “personal visit” without someone accompanying him from Israel, like the majority of politicians do when they are visiting the site.
Both of Brazil’s presidential candidates had controversial areas outside of Israeli relations. Da Silva was in prison for a year and a half for corruption charges. However, the ruling was later overturned because of grounds of judicial misconduct.
While in office, he was also pushing for the Brazilian government to have more control of the media, setting off alarms over limiting free speech. Iran wasn’t the only dictatorship da Silva supported.
Bolsonaro allowed deforestation in the Amazon, made more than one anti-gay comment, and praised the former military regime in Brazil.
Jeffrey‘s a senior writer with ThinkCivics and a freelance journalist with The Jerusalem Post. He’s a published author, earned an associate’s degree in theology, and is pursuing a master’s degree in communications with a focus on journalism.