Pro-Palestinian, pro-Iran Lula retakes Brazil’s presidency -analysis

Luis Inacio Lula da Silva once donned a keffiyeh and laid a wreath at the tomb of Palestinian leader and arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat.

 Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) welcomes his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during an official meeting in Tehran May 16, 2010.  (photo credit: REUTERS/RAHEB HOMAVANDI)
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) welcomes his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during an official meeting in Tehran May 16, 2010.
(photo credit: REUTERS/RAHEB HOMAVANDI)

Jerusalem lost a friend in Brasilia this week, when President Jair Bolsonaro, an enthusiastic Israel supporter, lost to former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who is vocally pro-Palestinian and nurtured ties between Brazil and Iran.

Da Silva, who is often just called “Lula,” became the first Brazilian president to visit Israel in 2010, but the trip was marked with controversy.

Lula's support for Palestinians

The year was the 150th anniversary of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl’s birth, and the Foreign Ministry added a visit to his grave to the protocol for visiting foreign dignitaries. Then-US vice president Joe Biden laid a wreath on Herzl’s grave weeks before da Silva’s visit, but the Brazilian president refused to do so. Israel’s foreign minister at the time, Avigdor Liberman, refused to meet with him due to the breach of protocol.

Then, da Silva donned a keffiyeh on his shoulders and laid a wreath at the tomb of Palestinian leader and arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat in Ramallah.

 Brazil's former President and presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his wife Rosangela Lula da Silva, also know as Janja, react at an election night gathering on the day of the Brazilian presidential election run-off, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 30, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/AMANDA PEROBELLI) Brazil's former President and presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his wife Rosangela Lula da Silva, also know as Janja, react at an election night gathering on the day of the Brazilian presidential election run-off, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 30, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMANDA PEROBELLI)

Concurrent media reports said that da Silva sought to meet with Hamas representatives, as well, which he thought would encourage peace and reconciliation. However, the meeting did not come to be.

Later in 2010, Brazil recognized a Palestinian state, setting off a wave of such recognitions in South America.

Da Silva continues to support unilateral Palestinian statehood, including Ramallah’s bid to become a UN member. In June of this year, he again wore a keffiyeh at an event and said that “Palestinians deserve our full attention and solidarity.”

Lula's support for Iran

The Brazilian president-elect also had close ties with Iran during his term, hosting antisemitic, homophobic former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and visiting Tehran. He opposed sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear program.

When an Iranian woman was sentenced to execution by stoning for committing adultery, 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.”

Lula’s successor was Dilma Rousseff, who had been his chief of staff, and their close ties continued after he left the presidency, including her appointing him to the position of chief of staff. Rousseff recalled Brazil’s ambassador to Israel to protest Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and she rejected Israel’s choice of Dani Dayan to be ambassador to Brazil, Dani Dayan, because he lived over the Green Line. The Palestinians opened an embassy in Brasilia during her term in office.

Bolsonaro or Lula

Bolsonaro, who became president in 2019, is an Evangelical Christian, like about a third of Brazil’s population, and is vocal in his support for Israel. On Election Day this week, his wife wore a shirt with an Israeli flag on it.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended Bolsonaro’s inauguration, and they visited a synagogue together. Three months later, Bolsonaro visited Israel, including a stop at the Western Wall with Netanyahu, rather than a “personal visit” without Israeli accompaniment, like other politicians have chosen to do at the site.

Bolsonaro said he would move the Brazilian Embassy to Jerusalem, but stopped short of doing so, opening a trade office in the capital, which was meant to be a first step toward a full move.

At the same time, Bolsonaro has made comments that angered Jews in Brazil and beyond, such as that the crimes of the Holocaust can be forgiven.

Both presidential candidates were highly controversial in areas unrelated to Israel. Bolsonaro has made anti-gay comments, praised Brazil’s former military regime and allowed deforestation in the Amazon. Da Silva spent a year and a half in prison on corruption charges, but the ruling was later overturned on grounds of judicial misconduct. He also pushed for greater government control of the media, raising concerns over limiting free speech. Iran is only one of several dictatorships he supported.