Brazil, in Dispute with Israel, Shows Limits of U.S. Diplomacy

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken confronted President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil on Wednesday about his recent sharp comments on Israel, including the Brazilian leader’s comparison of Israel’s attacks in Gaza to the Holocaust.

The sparring showed how the enduring war in Gaza has continued to expand into a broader diplomatic problem for the United States, and how the war’s mounting death toll has spurred more nations to speak out against Israel’s offensive.

An intensifying dispute between Brazil and Israel broke out this week over Mr. Lula’s comments on Sunday that the only comparison to Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza is “when Hitler decided to kill the Jews.” It was a significant escalation of his previous rhetoric.

Since then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has said Mr. Lula “crossed a red line,” Israel’s foreign minister called Brazil’s ambassador to the Holocaust museum and scolded him in front of the media, and Israel’s official account on X said Mr. Lula “went full on Holocaust denier.”

Brazil responded by recalling its ambassador to Israel “for consultations” and, according to Brazilian news outlets, discussed expelling Israel’s ambassador to Brazil if the situation escalated further.

In a 90-minute meeting in Brasília, Brazil’s capital, Mr. Blinken had a “frank exchange” with Mr. Lula, saying that he disagreed with the Brazilian leader’s recent statements and that the United States was trying to get hostages held by Hamas freed and get extended humanitarian pauses enacted, according to a senior U.S. State Department official.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity while on the secretary’s flight to Rio de Janeiro. Mr. Blinken is in Brazil for meetings at a conference of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 nations.

A senior Brazilian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the conversation about Israel was calm and respectful, and that Mr. Lula condemned both the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7, and the scale of Israel’s response, emphasizing the deaths of Palestinian children.

The conversation came at the end of the meeting, and Mr. Blinken opened the topic by discussing how his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, survived the Holocaust, the Brazilian official said. The biggest point of contention was over Mr. Lula’s stance that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza, the official said.

Both officials said the two leaders agreed on the goal of ending the conflict as soon as possible. However, Mr. Blinken emphasized that must be done under conditions that prevent Hamas from carrying out another Oct. 7-style attack and that end the long-running cycle of violence.

That the Israel-Gaza war has become a point of friction in the Biden administration’s dealings with one of the most influential nations in Latin America, one considered a leading voice in the region, illustrates how the conflict has thrown a shadow on American diplomacy around the world.

Countries across the so-called global south, including American partners, have publicly opposed U.S. policy since last fall and called for cease-fires in the war.

Those calls have grown louder as the enormous civilian death toll has risen throughout the winter — now at around 30,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza, most of them civilians, according to health ministry officials there. The Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 killed about 1,200 Israelis, the majority of them civilians.

Mr. Lula’s recent recall of Brazil’s ambassador to Israel follows similar moves by other nations in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa, including Turkey, Jordan, Bahrain, Chile, Colombia and South Africa.

Brazil and South Africa have now emerged as two of the most vocal opponents of the war, showing that there is now little support for Israel among the BRICS group of developing nations, which is emerging as an important diplomatic and economic power. Among the other major nations in BRICS, China and Russia have played both sides in the war, while India has sought to remain neutral.

The U.S. has also opposed allies repeatedly in the U.N. and The Hague over the Gaza war. In October, the United States vetoed Brazil’s proposed resolution to the U.N. Security Council calling for humanitarian access and protection of civilians in Gaza, as well as the immediate release of Israeli hostages.

U.S. officials said they vetoed the measure in part because it did not mention Israel’s right to self-defense. On Tuesday, the U.S. vetoed another security council resolution put forward by Algeria on behalf of Arab states that called for “an immediate humanitarian cease-fire.” The U.S. said the resolution would have jeopardized negotiations to free Israeli hostages.

Thousands of miles away from the meeting between Mr. Blinken and Mr. Lula in Brasília, the United States and Brazil were squaring off at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

On Wednesday, the U.S. asked the court to not call for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from Gaza, saying Israel faced “very real security needs.” A day earlier, Brazil argued the opposite to the court.

The U.S. has also pushed back against South Africa’s case at the court that accuses Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, a case that Brazil has backed. Israel denies the accusations. The court made an initial ruling last month that said Israel must take steps to avoid committing genocide, although it did not call for the Israeli military to stop its campaign.

Aside from the discussion over the war in Gaza, the meeting between Mr. Blinken and Mr. Lula was mostly friendly, with the two sides discussing ways to work together on challenges in Venezuela and Haiti and to deepen cooperation on supply chains, worker rights and the environment, according to the officials.

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