Berliner Tageblatt - Blinken arrives in Brazil after Lula's Israel denunciation

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Blinken arrives in Brazil after Lula's Israel denunciation
Blinken arrives in Brazil after Lula's Israel denunciation / Photo: © AFP

Blinken arrives in Brazil after Lula's Israel denunciation

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Brazil on Tuesday for his first trip to the South American nation, arriving amid a diplomatic spat after President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva enraged Washington ally Israel by comparing its Gaza campaign to the Holocaust.

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Blinken will start his visit in Brasilia, and also go to Rio de Janeiro for a Group of 20 summit, followed by a stop in Argentina, where he will confer with the new President Javier Milei.

For the top US diplomat, the belated first trip to the Latin American powers had been seen as an opportunity to build ties with two key leaders, in a break from his exhaustive trips to the Middle East.

But the turmoil engulfing that region has unexpectedly followed him.

Over the weekend, the 78-year-old veteran leftist Lula, on a trip to Ethiopia for an African Union summit, said that what was happening in the Gaza Strip "isn't a war, it's a genocide."

"What's happening in the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian people hasn't happened at any other moment in history. Actually, it has happened: when Hitler decided to kill the Jews," Lula said.

He received backing Tuesday from the presidents of Colombia and Bolivia, two fellow South American countries to have criticized Israel.

The comparison outraged Israel, which declared Lula persona non grata and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Brazilian president had "crossed a red line."

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said of Lula's remarks, "Obviously we disagree with those comments."

"We have been quite clear that we do not believe that genocide has occurred in Gaza," Miller told reporters Tuesday.

In tit-for-tat escalation, Brazil and Israel have each summoned the other's ambassador, with Brazil recalling its envoy for consultations. Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called Lula's comparisons "delusional," and was himself called a liar by his Brazilian counterpart.

The war started October 7, when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack that left about 1,160 people dead in southern Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed more than 29,092 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

President Joe Biden has been Israel's key backer, with the United States on Tuesday again vetoing a ceasefire call at the Security Council, even as Biden voices concern over the toll on civilians and presses Israel to let in more aid.

- Outspoken Brazilian leaders -

The potentially awkward encounter with Lula comes after hopes of a new start in US-Brazil relations.

Blinken's first trip as secretary of state to Brazil comes more than three years into his tenure, an unusually long wait to visit the Western Hemisphere's second most populous nation.

But the Biden administration had limited interest in dealing with Lula's predecessor, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, an ally of former president Donald Trump who similarly scoffed at climate action and is under investigation for an alleged attempt to overturn a democratic election.

Lula, who previously served as president from 2003 to 2010, traveled to Washington and met with Biden after returning to power early last year.

The two veteran politicians found common cause on prioritizing climate change, labor rights and democratic values.

But Lula has already shown his divergence with the United States on the international stage with his stance on Ukraine.

He has charged that both Ukraine and its Western backers bear partial responsibility for the war, not just Russia, which invaded almost exactly two years ago.

The G20 meeting of foreign ministers in Rio de Janeiro will also mark a rare occasion since the war in which Blinken will be in the same room as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

At the last G20 foreign ministers' meeting in New Delhi in March 2023, Blinken held his only one-on-one in-person meeting, albeit briefly, with Lavrov since the war.

No meeting has been announced in Rio, and Washington is moving to take more punitive steps toward Russia after the death in prison of Alexei Navalny, the top opponent of President Vladimir Putin.

Blinken will head after Rio to Argentina to see Milei, who took office in December on a libertarian, anti-establishment platform.

In a sharp contrast with Lula, Milei is one of the most vocal international supporters of Israel.

Milei has promised to move Argentina's embassy to Jerusalem, a step taken only by the United States and four small countries.

M.Furrer--BTB