What’s troubling Brazil-Israel ties? Unpacking a love-hate relationship

From a vital role in Israel’s creation to a jibe over Brazilian football’s lowest moment, ties have soared and plummeted.

A woman holds up a green-and-white banner during a protest on the streets of Brasilia, which reads: "Musulmanas do Brasil, anti-zionismo, anti-militarismo, anti-extremismo".
A woman from Brazil's Palestinian community holds a sign written in Portuguese that says, "Muslim women of Brazil: anti-Zionism, anti-militarism, anti-extremism", during a pro-Palestinian protest in Brasilia on October 20, 2023 [File: Eraldo Peres/AP Photo]

Brazil has recalled its ambassador to Israel and said it would not retract statements that the Israeli government calls “anti-Semitic” as a spat between the two countries escalated this week.

On Sunday, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva compared Israel’s war on Gaza, in which nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, to the Holocaust, sparking outrage from Israel.

Israel declared Lula persona non grata on Monday, summoning the Brazilian ambassador and demanding that Brasilia retract the statements. In return, Brazil summoned the Israeli ambassador in Brasilia for a dressing-down on Monday while also recalling its envoy to Tel Aviv.

The tensions mark the latest chapter in a relationship between two countries more than 10,000km (6,200 miles) apart but bound by history dating back to the creation of Israel.


Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva addresses the opening of the 37th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union at the African Union Headquarters, in Addis Ababa
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva compared Israel’s war in Gaza to the Holocaust at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia [Reuters]

What has Brazil’s position been on the war so far?

Brazil denounced the October 7 attacks on Israel, led by the Palestinian armed group Hamas, in which 1,139 people were killed and more than 200 people taken hostage.

However, the country has also been vocal about the war on Gaza, condemning Israel’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians and on crucial infrastructure. Lula said last year that the death of thousands of children “is particularly shocking”.

At the United Nations Security Council, where it is a non-permanent member, Brazil has backed every single resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza although the United States has vetoed these moves.

In November after Israel eventually allowed a select number of foreigners, dual nationals and Palestinian patients to leave Gaza through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, Brazilians were initially missing from the daily lists, sparking speculation that Israel was punishing Brazil for its diplomatic postures. Israel denied those suggestions.

When repatriation flights to Brazil finally started, Lula was at the airport tarmac in Brasilia to welcome Palestinian Brazilians as they landed.

For decades, Brazil has called for a Palestinian state to be created on the borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in which Israel seized the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Have Brazil and Israel always had tense ties?

Not really. In fact, Brazil had a role in the creation of Israel.

Brazil was the president of the UN General Assembly in November 1947 when the UN Partition Plan for Palestine was first presented to the body, and it played a significant role in seeing the plan adopted. The partition plan recommended the creation of a Jewish state in British-administered Mandatory Palestine.

Oswaldo Aranha, a one-time foreign minister of Brazil who was head of the country’s UN delegation, chaired the General Assembly and played a vital role in discussions of the partition plan. According to Gerson Menandro Garcia de Freitas, former Brazilian ambassador to Israel, Aranha realised on the day of the initial vote that the plan didn’t have enough support, so he cajoled speakers to prolong their addresses and run the clock out, eventually delaying the vote by two days, by which time, enough votes had been secured for the creation of Israel. Today, Tel Aviv and Beersheba have streets named after Aranha, and Jerusalem has a public square named in the Brazilian diplomat’s honour.

Brazil was also one of the first countries to formally recognise the state of Israel in 1949.

More than 100,000 Jewish people live in Brazil, making it the second largest Jewish community in Latin America.

Relations between Brazil and Israel soared to new heights under former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who proclaimed Brazil as Israel’s best friend. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Bolsonaro when he was president-elect in 2018, the Israeli leader was awarded a national prize previously presented to Queen Elizabeth II and US President Dwight Eisenhower.

Bolsonaro later sparked controversy when he signalled he might move the Brazilian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after a similar move by the US. In his 2019 trip to Israel, Bolsonaro visited the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, with Netanyahu. It is in Israeli-occupied territory in Jerusalem and is also known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam. During that trip, Bolsonaro chose to announce a non-diplomatic trade mission in the city rather than a full embassy.

What other dips have there been in relations?

The current crisis isn’t the first time that Brazil and Israel have seen their relations spiral downwards.

In 2014, Brazil — then under Lula’s protege, President Dilma Roussef — criticised Israel’s violence against Palestinians and recalled its ambassador for diplomatic talks. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson responded by describing Brazil as a “diplomatic dwarf”, escalating tensions further.

That wasn’t all. The spokesperson taunted Brazil over its embarrassing 7-1 thrashing at the hands — or feet, rather — of Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals, which Brazil was hosting. Israel’s assault on Gaza that year, he said, was “proportionate”. What was “disproportionate”, he said, was the semifinal score.

Brazil, alongside 28 other countries, voted for a UN Human Rights Council investigation into allegations of Israeli human rights violations in that offensive. An estimated 2,000 civilians were killed in that war.

In November last year, Israel irked Brazilian authorities when its foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, publicly said it helped Brasilia bust a Hezbollah ring planning attacks in the South American country. Mossad linked the planned attacks to the ongoing Gaza war, suggesting that Jewish lives in Brazil were under threat.

Brazilian Justice Minister Flavio Dino did not deny the assistance but responded in an apparent rebuke that “Brazil is a sovereign country,” and “no foreign force orders around the Brazilian Federal Police”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies