Leadership in the Global South: President Lula’s and Gaza

Rawlings Mitema Onserio
President Lula da Silva of Brazil giving a speech at the 37th African Union Summit in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Credit: Ricardo Stuckert, PR.

In February of 2024, President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil was invited as a special guest to the 37th Summit of the African Union which provided an opprtunity to promote bilateral relations between Brazil and other countries in the Global South. The event particularly singled out Brazil’s relationship with Ethiopia, affirming the desire to increase the trade volume between the two nations. As demonstrated during his second presidency, President Lula’s dedication to fostering partnerships in Africa is more than empty rhetoric, with Brazil’s endorsement of the membership of two African countries, Ethiopia and Egypt, to the BRICS trading bloc underscores this commitment.

But what grabbed headlines during Lula’s visit were his comments on the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Whilst Brazil has strived to maintain a sense of neutrality in such contentious international issues, the two most recent presidents have done little to hide their proclivities. Former president Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters waved Israeli flags during his rallies, and he was very outspoken in his support for the country. During his presidency, talk came up of moving the Brazilian embassy from the capital Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to bolster the legitimacy of Israel’s claim to the holy city.

Whereas president Lula favours a more diplomatic approach and supports a two-state solution. But Lula is careful to not outright condemn Israel or distance Brazil from Palestine and its Middle Eastern allies such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Fallout from President Lula’s Remarks

President Lula meets with U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, in Brasilia. Credit: Ricardo Stuckert, PR.

In Addis Ababa, President Lula informed reporters that the situation unfolding in the Gaza Strip was a genocide rather than a war. The fallout from the statement was immediate. His words echoed the sentiments of the 54 African Heads of State, with Moussa Faki, the chair of the African Union Commission, having described Israel’s offensive as the most blatant violation of international humanitarian law and accused Israel of having eliminated Gaza’s inhabitants.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned President Lula’s statement, stating that it had “crossed a red line,” and accused him of being a “virulent anti-Semite.” Brazil’s Ambassador in Israel, Frederico Meyer, was subsequently summoned to a meeting in the Yad Vashem Museum, where he was reprimanded, before being summoned back to Brazil by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, known as Itamaraty.

The war broke out on October 7th 2023, when militant group Hamas launched an attack on Israeli cities on the Simchat Torah holiday. Israel officially reported that over 1,200 people died in the attack, including around 300 soldiers. On October 9th, Israel declared a complete siege on the Gaza Strip, with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant saying “no electricity, no food, no fuel” would be allowed to enter. Since then, an all-out conflict has unfolded, marked by airstrikes, ground invasions, and evacuations, with no sign of peace talks on the horizon. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, the death toll has surpassed 30,000, with 75,000 people injured since the outbreak of war. Both sides have exchanged accusations, each claiming lawful rights to the land with no swift resolution in sight.

Lula’s statement resonated with the Global South but not with other regions. Netanyahu declared that the President was persona non grata until he retracted his comparison of Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip to the mass extermination of Jews by the Third Reich. In a February meeting with President Lula in Brasilia, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated he “disagreed” with his remarks on the ongoing Gaza conflict.

Internally, President Lula also faced pushback as major Jewish organizations in Brazil condemned his likening of the Gaza Conflict to the Holocaust. The Brazilian Israelite Confederation (CONIB) denounced what it termed “a perverse distortion of reality” by Lula. While FISESP, the Jewish Federation of Sao Paulo—Brazil’s largest Jewish community— also criticised Lula’s statements. This was followed by a dip in Lula’s approval ratings from 54% in February to 51% in December, its lowest level since April 2023.

Additionally, Lula’s support among evangelical Christians, comprising nearly one-third of Brazil’s population, declined to 35% from 41%, while their disapproval of his government rose to 62% from 56%. But President Lula garnered backing from his South American counterparts, Colombia and Bolivia, nations that also uphold left-leaning governance. Gustavo Petro and Luis Arce, presidents of Colombia and Bolivia, conveyed solidarity with President Lula.

In response, President Lula has stood firm on his statements and rejected any retraction. In an interview with Brazilian RedeTV, he maintained that he did not use the word “holocaust” in reference to Israel. Lula reiterated his stance that Israel is committing genocide against Gazan civilians, expressing doubt that Netanyahu would comprehend his initial statement.

Positioning himself as a leader of the Global South, President Lula’s remarks on the Gaza conflict were a shrewd political manoeuvre, likely to galvanise southern hemisphere nations against colonisation and human rights violations. However, domestically and with Western allies, this stance could tarnish the President’s legacy and jeopardise Brazil’s longstanding tradition of neutrality.

Looking towards the Future

President Lula with his Kenyan counterpart, President William Ruto. Credit: Ricardo Stuckert, PR.

In conclusion, the complex dynamics surrounding President Lula’s statements on the Gaza conflict underscore the intricate interplay between domestic politics, international relations, and ethical considerations. While his alignment with the Global South may bolster solidarity against oppression and injustice, it also risks straining relations with allies and undermining Brazil’s traditional stance of neutrality.

The implications of such statements extend beyond mere rhetoric, impacting diplomatic ties, national identity, and the pursuit of peace in the global arena. As the world continues to grapple with the complexities of conflict and diplomacy, the legacy of leaders like President Lula serves as a reminder of the delicate balance between principle and pragmatism on the international stage.


-How will President Lula’s statements on the Gaza conflict impact Brazil-Israel relations moving forward?

-Is President Lula trading domestic approval for international approval in a bid to place Brazil as a leader of the Global South?

-What role will the Global South play in the search for a solution to the Gaza conflict?

Further Reading

“Brazil’s Lula accuses Israel of ‘genocide’ in Gaza” France 24, February 18, 2024

“Israel’s Netanyahu slams Brazilian president’s comparison of Gaza war to the Holocaust” AP, February 18, 2024

“Lula approval dips in Brazil after Israel-Gaza remarks” Reuters, March 6, 2024

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Leadership in the Global …

by Rawlings Mitema Onserio time to read: 4 min