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Weighing the political fallout from Lula's Nazi comment

Weighing the political fallout from Lula's Nazi comment

The apparently off-the-cuff remarks have put him in hot water at home, but improvements in Israel-Brazil ties were already unlikely

Analysis | Latin America

On Sunday, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva criticized Israel’s actions in Gaza in the strongest possible terms.

“What is happening in the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian people has no parallel in any other historical moment,” Lula said to a gathering of reporters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After a beat, the head of Latin America’s largest nation added that, actually, there was a similar episode worth recalling: "when Hitler decided to kill the Jews.”

Lula’s comments in Ethiopia came after a brief visit to Egypt, where he addressed the Arab League. Both African nations are new members of the BRICS — a growing geopolitical grouping originally composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

While Lula’s visit emphasized past ties and future opportunities, his comments on Hitler eclipsed whatever other message he may have hoped to convey. The fallout opened a new line of attack against him at home, undermining his administration’s domestic policy goals at least temporarily. The practical result abroad, however, is unlikely to add up to very much. If anything, the newly pronounced enmity between the Lula and Netanyahu governments is clarifying.

The differences between this historical moment and World War II so vastly outweigh the similarities that it is hardly worth debating the merits of the comparison that Lula drew. The more intriguing question is whether Lula’s comment signaled any kind of shift in Brazil’s position on the issue of Israel-Palestine.

There are multiple ways of reading his intentions. Many foreign critics pilloried him for invoking the Holocaust to make a political point. Netanyahu called Lula’s remarks "shameful and serious," suggesting the Brazilian president aimed to "harm the Jewish people and Israel's right to defend itself." For Netanyahu, who has faced mounting legal troubles and popular opposition at home while overseeing a military campaign plausibly accused of acts of genocide, Lula's words "cross[ed] a red line."

Standing alongside Brazil’s ambassador to Israel at Yad Vashem, Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Monday declared: “We will not forget nor forgive. It is a serious antisemitic attack. In my name, and in the name of all Israeli citizens, tell President Lula that he is persona non grata in Israel until he retracts his statements.”

At home, opposition forces have mounted a quixotic impeachment effort that has nevertheless garnered significant support, including from some members of Lula’s governing coalition. Lula was hammered in several of Brazil’s mainstream press outlets for purportedly isolating his country on the world stage, supporting Hamas, or trivializing the murder of 6 million Jews between 1941 and 1945.

A more charitable interpretation of what happened is that Lula simply spoke off the cuff and made a bad historical analogy. After all, nothing had fundamentally changed up to that point in his government’s position, which was to work with the Israeli government even as it strongly criticizes what it sees as unconscionable excesses in its war against Hamas. Before this weekend, Brazil had not gone as far as other countries in Latin America in reconsidering its ties with Israel.

Moreover, it’s unclear why Lula would make a calculated decision to stake so much on an extemporized comparison between the Netanyahu government and the Third Reich. He surely would have known that the fallout, entirely predictable as it has been, would be extremely inconvenient in political terms.

For example, the week ahead promises even more troubling legal news for former president Jair Bolsonaro, the leading counterweight to Lula in terms of Brazil’s national politics. Rather than allowing the media narrative this week to focus on Bolsonaro, the Lula government has had to expend time and energy on addressing criticisms of the president’s remarks. In so doing, it has established the contours of a new, much more openly hostile relationship with the Netanyahu government.

On Monday, Lula recalled the Brazilian ambassador to Israel for consultations. Celso Amorim, Lula’s former foreign minister and close current adviser, said the president would not apologize for his comments. "Israel is the one placing itself in a condition of increasing isolation," he insisted. According to journalist Eliane Oliveira, the Lula government is annoyed with what it sees as Netanyahu’s eagerness to make hay of the Brazilian president’s remarks and use them to his own political benefit.

In that regard, it is worth noting that Bolsonaro was a close Netanyahu ally. The prime minister even endorsed Bolsonaro in his 2022 race against Lula, indicating that there was already a vast political divide between Lula and his Israeli counterpart. On Monday night, Alexandre Padilha, Brazil’s Minister of Institutional Relations, spoke at length about Lula’s comments during a televised interview, asserting that the president’s critique constituted a passionate reaction against the Netanyahu government, not a criticism of Israel per se and certainly not of Jews worldwide.

Since last year, Lula has strongly criticized Israel’s assault on Gaza, calling it “as grave” as the Hamas attack on October 7. Before that, Brazil secured overwhelming support within the United Nations Security Council for a resolution that called for “humanitarian pauses” in Israel’s bombing to allow for aid and supplies to enter Gaza, but the measure was vetoed by the United States. The implosion of Brazil’s relationship with the Netanyahu government is unsurprising given the politics of the Brazilian left that makes up Lula’s base and the broader landscape of Latin America. Countries like Colombia, Bolivia, and Chile, which has the largest Palestinian refugee population outside the Arab world, have been more strident and willing to act on their criticism of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, so the continued degradation of the Brazil-Israel relationship should surprise no one.

On Tuesday morning, Amorim doubled down on the argument that Lula’s comparison, attributed to a sense of visceral outrage, might push the international community to take firmer action on the matter: "Lula's speech shook the world and triggered a swirl of emotions that could help resolve an issue that the coldness of political interests has been unable to resolve.” The fact that the Lula administration has closed the door on any public apology to the Netanyahu government is telling and is, in fact, what seems to have changed the nature of the bilateral relationship. It signals that the Brazilians have decided they are comfortable, if not entirely pleased, with where they’ve landed vis-à-vis Israel after the weekend.

Since returning to the world stage for a third term in January of last year, Lula has rekindled his country’s independent streak, steadfastly refusing to embrace the U.S. line on a host of key geopolitical issues even while working assiduously with Washington on matters of mutual interest. As I have argued previously in these pages, Lula insists on cultivating ties across ideological and political lines in pursuit of greater Brazilian influence over a shifting world order.

It is not entirely clear whether a firm break with Israel is actually in the offing. As far as Brasilia is concerned, a meeting between Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira and Israel’s ambassador on Monday constituted the end point of current tensions. No more escalation is expected from the Lula government, which now sees the ball as being in Netanyahu’s court, according to journalist Guilherme Amado.

The Israeli government, however, seems unlikely to tone down its criticisms of Lula. On Tuesday afternoon, the country’s official X account accused Lula of Holocaust denialism and, in a post written in Portuguese on the same platform, Israel’s foreign minister reiterated that Lula was persona non grata until he issued an apology, something the Brazilian government has said it will not do.

So will Brazil break with Israel over its sustained bombardment of the Gaza Strip? A great deal of other Global South players have been there for some time. Brazil may well arrive there now, too.

Either way, Lula is unlikely to garner any political benefit at home from this row, especially considering that those likely to welcome escalating tensions with Netanyahu already saw Lula as a staunch ally of the Palestinian cause. Given the challenges facing his political agenda, the last thing Lula needs is a muddled diplomatic crisis like this to galvanize opposition forces.

The Israeli prime minister, on the other hand, may well benefit from having the Brazilian as a foil — which, from a Brazilian perspective, is precisely why Lula should have been more careful on that stage in Addis Ababa.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks at an event in Rio de Janeiro while out of office in 2016. (Salty View/ Shutterstock)

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