Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly boycotted the official visit by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva. Lieberman declined to attend meetings with the visiting head of state or his address to the Knesset, Israeli and Brazilian media reported. Lieberman was reportedly upset that Lula refused to visit the grave of Zionist movement founder Theodor Herzl in Jerusalem, contrary to a new Israeli protocol for visiting dignitaries. Instead, Lula donned a keffiyeh around his shoulders and laid a wreath at the tomb of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. “This is an insult,” one senior Foreign Ministry official said. “It is offensive that he laid a wreath at the grave of a terrorist, but not at the tomb of Zionism’s visionary.” US Vice President Joe Biden last week was the first world leader to lay a wreath at Herzl’s grave as part of the new protocol, initiated a few weeks ago to honor Herzl’s 150th birthday.
Speaking at a Jerusalem press conference, Lula described his visit to Israel as “a mission of peace.” He criticized the West Bank security barrier, called on Israel to lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip, and described Jewish settlements in the West Bank as extinguishing “the candle of hope.” At Ramallah, he said: “In Brazil, when we think of Ramallah, Gaza and the West Bank, they evoke a fearless and courageous people fighting for their dignity, freedom and democracy. The self-determination of the Palestinians is a cause close to the heart of Brazilians.”
On the other hand, Lula informed Israeli President Shimon Peres that Israel had been accepted as the first non-South American partner in the Southern Cone trade bloc, Mercosur. Brazil is Israel’s largest trading partner in Latin America, and trade between Brazil and Iran has grown by 40% during Lula’s presidency.
The Brazilian leader’s visit to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan comes ahead of a more controversial visit to Iran in May. In November last year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to visit Brazil. In his Israel visit, Lula also broached closer ties with Syria as part of a Brazilian Middle East peace initiative. “Syria is an important player both in the conflict and in the solution for peace in the Middle East,” said Lula in a hotel press conference, just before leaving for the airport to fly back to Brazil. “If rich nations, or the nations in Europe and the United States, are not talking to Syria, Brazil has good relations with the country and is going to approach it.” (Jerusalem Post, Periodico 26, Cuba, Tehran Times, March 18; BBC News, March 16)