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Brazilian–Palestinian relations: The turning point

Interview with Celso Amorim, Brazil’s former minister of foreign relations

July 6, 2020 at 9:00 am

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas (R) shakes hands with Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim during their meeting at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 17 February 2005. [JAMAL ARURI/AFP via Getty Images]

To read the second part of this interview please click here

With the rise of the extreme right-wing under current President Jair Bolsonaro, former Brazilian Minister of Foreign Relations Celso Amorim is speaking out about Brazilian-Arab relations in light of current developments in Brazilian foreign policy. Amorim was a permanent representative of Brazil to the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, from 1999-2001. He held the position of the defence minister of Brazil from 2011-2014 and foreign minister between 2003–2010.

Relations between Brazil and the Middle East

There exists a deep-rooted history between Brazil and the Middle East. Arab descendants in Brazil consider the middle of the 19th century to be the official start of their migration to the country. According to the International Organisation for Migration, there are 13 million Arab migrants living in Brazil. The Arab community constitutes a large proportion of Brazilian society, with many holding prominent positions. In fact, Brazil is home to the largest Lebanese diaspora community in the world, which includes Brazil’s former President Michel Temer.

Amorim expresses that Brazilian-Arab relations are not only based on trade exchange, but: “There are family relations, cultural relations, influence relations… Also, of course, there are Arab immigrants who play an important role in constructing Brazil. Brazil and the countries of the Arab world share strong human bonds. Notable Arab influence can be found in Brazilian culture and society. This may be seen in literature, cuisine, and in the names of some of our most prominent politicians and businessmen.”

The rise of the Workers’ Party from 2003-2016

Since the rise of the Workers’ Party in 2003, headed by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, most commonly referred to as “Lula”, he has been eager to develop relations with Arab countries. On Lula’s desire for unification between both regions, Amorim notes: “Without any hesitation, I can testify that the Middle East was brought, perhaps for the first time, to the centre of our diplomatic radar. This might seem strange for a country that participated in two world wars and even sent troops to Suez, under the UN flag; but throughout most of her history, Brazil has maintained good and cordial, though somewhat distant, relations with the countries of the Middle East.”

In the initial stages of Lula’s presidency in 2003, he travelled to Syria, then to Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Libya, and was the first Brazilian head of state to officially visit the Middle East since 1870. During his visit to Lebanon, he announced: “The global vocation of Brazil is to work on the creation of an Arab-South American bloc in conjunction with Third World countries to deal on equal terms with countries of the North.” Lula urged the formation of an “Arab-South American bloc” to facilitate developing countries to have a stronger voice in international forums.

Lula transformed his words into reality by establishing the most important initiative on the diplomatic level, the Summit of South American-Arab Countries (ASPA), a mechanism intended to strengthen the ties between the two regions. According to Amorim: “During President Lula’s two mandates, Brazilian foreign policy made a genuine effort to engage countries of the Middle East. Brazil was able to host, in May 2005, the first South American–Arab countries summit. A second ASPA summit was organised in Doha, Qatar, in 2009. The third summit should have taken place in Lima, Peru, in the early part of 2011, but events in the Middle East forced its postponement.”

Brazil's Celso Amorim (C/L-standing) addresses a lunch with Arab Foreign Ministers in the framework of the Summit of South American and Arab Countries in Brasilia, on 09 May 2005. [GUSTAVO MAGALHAES/AFP via Getty Images]

Brazil’s Celso Amorim (C/L-standing) addresses a lunch with Arab Foreign Ministers in the framework of the Summit of South American and Arab Countries in Brasilia, on 09 May 2005. [GUSTAVO MAGALHAES/AFP via Getty Images]

Amorim explains that ASPA was highly significant in economy, trade, culture, history and other considerations, and also in the role of Brazil within the difficulties of the Middle East. “I remembered that in one of those trips, in preparation for a summit between South American and Arab countries, I visited ten countries in ten days,” Amorim notes.

An obvious question is, why is there Brazilian interest in the Middle East? What interests could link Brazil with Arab countries? Amorim clarifies Brazil’s position by explaining: “Brazil’s interests in coming closer to the Middle East are quite distinct from those of the traditional Western powers. We do not depend on the Middle East for oil. Although we fully grasp the centrality of the region for world peace, Brazil has no major direct national security concern at stake there. We are not a large arms exporter to the region. And of course, unlike other countries, we do not carry any colonial or Cold War baggage in the Middle East (or anywhere else, for that matter).” Amorim views it as a well-established, rooted cultural, historical and socio-political Arab-Brazilian relationship.

Brazil and Palestine

The Brazilian successive visits to the Middle East have not been distant from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as Lula stated during his first visit to Damascus: “The continued occupation of Palestinian territories, the maintenance and expansion of settlements are unacceptable.”  Amorim, who was the Brazilian foreign minister at the time, made his first visit to Palestine and Israel in 2005, and remembers this time by recounting:  “I have travelled five times to Israel and Palestine since 2005. My first trip to Ramallah was part of the preparations for the ASPA process. But my contacts with President Mahmoud Abbas, with the then Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, and with my official counterpart allowed me to have a deeper view of the grim situation the Palestinian people were going through, as did also my car journey from the Jordan–Palestine crossing point at the Allenby Bridge and back.” Amorim continues: “But I also visited Israel to make a balance, I know it is different to use ‘balance’ at that region, but we try as much as possible.”

Brazil showed its firm support for the Palestinian cause, as well as conveying its message of peace and conciliation, as explained by Amorim: “During the Gaza conflict in January 2009, I was on a trip to Portugal. I heard about the war so immediately called President Lula and talked to him about the situation there, and I told him that I should go to visit the region. My first visit was to Syria, then quickly to Israel, Egypt, Jordan and then to Palestine. I remembered I was already in the region when Ban Ki-moon came. On that occasion, I delivered a donation of food and medical supplies from Brazil to the people of Gaza. I joined Brazil’s voice to the many around the world, who were condemning the invasion of Gaza and appealing for a prompt cessation of hostilities.”

Israel's President Shimon Peres (C), Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (L) and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim are photographed during meeting at Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, November 11, 2009. Peres is on a four-day official visit to Brazil. [EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images]

Israel’s President Shimon Peres (C), Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (L) and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim are photographed during meeting at Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, November 11, 2009. Peres is on a four-day official visit to Brazil. [EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images]

In 2010, Lula made the first ever trip by a former Brazilian head of state to Palestine. He had taken many measures in favour of Palestine, including raising diplomatic representation between the two countries and giving a plot of land near the Brazilian presidential palace to the Palestinian embassy. On Lula’s recognition of Palestine, Amorim professed: “I think this was a good and important step. The Brazilian recognition of the Palestinian state was a natural step, given our willingness to contribute to a just and lasting solution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Of course, there were countries in South America who followed this step and I think its impact was beyond the region even.”

This position was also maintained by Lula’s successor, President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016). Brazil had a remarkable stance towards Israel’s military offensive against the people of Gaza in 2014, with Rousseff describing what was happening in Gaza as “a massacre”. The following year, Brazil rejected Dani Dayan’s nomination as Israeli ambassador to Brazil because of his senior position in the Yesha Council, representing Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. While Amorim considers President Rousseff’s stance as “ordinary matters” he confirms: “We always condemned every attack on Gaza and we were always be critical.” Following the dismissal of President Rousseff in 2016, her deputy Michel Temer took over presidency until 2018.

In 2018, the Brazilian Workers’ Party was deprived of its fifth victory in the presidential elections in favour of right-wing presidential candidate Bolsonaro, who violated all of his country’s diplomatic traditions, particularly with regards to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The strengths of previous relations with Arab countries which were carefully cultivated by Bolsonaro’s predecessors, were to take an entirely different direction to that maintained by Brazil over the decades. Amorim summarises this diplomatic U-turn by frankly observing: “The country never had a diplomatic position as irrational and disastrous as that adopted by the current president, Jair Bolsonaro.”