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What do Brazil’s elections mean for the Palestinians?

The frontrunners of Brazil’s presidential elections have taken radically contrasting positions on the question of Palestine.  

Elections have gone to a runoff stage and a final decision on whether President Jair Bolsonaro, elected in 2018, can form a government for the second term will be decided later in October. 

His opponent, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has made what has been termed as one of the most remarkable political comebacks. Just a few years ago the leftist leader was embroiled in the infamous Operation Carwash scam. 

Ahead of the polls over the weekend, it seemed Lula would easily sweep with the opinion polls overwhelmingly vouching for his success. 

He indeed took the lead by capturing 48 percent of the votes but Bolsonaro with 43 percent of the votes is still not far behind. The second election round will decide who gets to lead the tropical country, which is home to the Amazon jungles. 

Away from their political turf, it’s their views on the most complicated conflict of the Middle East where they have attained international significance. 

While Bolsonaro, long backed by evangelical Christians, supports Israel, Lula says he wants to see a free Palestinian state.  

Here’s what the two leaders have said about the issue over the years. 

A Palestinian recognition 

Lula, who rose from poverty to lead an economic transformation as its leader, served as president from 2003 to 2010. 

In March 2010, he became the first Brazilian president to visit Israel and Palestine. His government recognised Palestine as a state based on the pre-1967 war boundary, which includes most of Gaza, the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

“I dream of an independent and free Palestine living in peace in the Middle East,” Lula said while visiting the West Bank. 

Israel’s then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman criticsed Lula for visiting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s grave while deciding to skip paying tribute to Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. 

While the Palestinians and their supporters hailed the move, Israel’s foreign ministry reacted harshly, saying it would undermine peace efforts as the matter was supposed to be resolved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  

But the decision meant a lot for the Palestinians as Israel has allowed illegal settlements to be built in the occupied West Bank, chipping away territory from a future Palestine state. 

Even after Lula’s departure in 2010, his protege and the first female president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, did not go easy on the Israeli military actions in Gaza. 

After the Israeli forces were accused of using disproportionate force during the 2014 Gaza War, Brasilia called back its ambassador from Israel. It was one of few countries to take such an extreme step. 

Next year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Dani Dayan as his country’s ambassador to Brazil. Rousseff’s government refused to accept Dayan as he was affiliated with the illegal settlements. 

During his time in office, Lula even bought a piece of land near the Brazilian presidential office for a future Palestinian embassy. 

More recently, Lula, dubbed by Time magazine as Brazil’s most popular leader, met the Palestinian diaspora in Brazil where he was pictured wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh, a traditional Arab black and white scarf. 

A supporter of Israel

On the other hand, Bolsonaro’s re-election bid has received strong backing from both Netanyahu and former US President Donald Trump who helped cement Washington’s ties with Tel Aviv during his tenure. 

“Thank you President Jair Bolsonaro for your leadership in strengthening the alliance between the people of Israel and the people of Brazil. Under your leadership that relationship has never been stronger,” Netanyahu said in a message tweeted by Bolsonaro ahead of the election.

Bolsonaro, who once quipped “Palestine is not a country”, repeatedly voiced support for Israel during his four-year tenure in office that ended in 2022. 

During his election campaign in 2018, the conservative Liberal Party leader announced his decision to move Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem, a particularly sensitive issue for the Palestinians. 

Brazil never went ahead with the decision and instead opened a trade and investment office in West Jerusalem. 

On his first state visit to Israel, Bolsonaro visited the Western Wall – sacred to Judaism – but located in the eastern part that Israel has annexed, a move not recognised internationally. 

In May 2020 when Brazil was reeling under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Bolsonaro gave a speech with the Israeli and American flags in the background. 

That’s primarily because his party derives support from a Christian evangelical voter base, which has long backed Israel. 

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