Ever since Jair Bolsonaro’s election as President of Brazil in October 2018, the State of Israel has been counted as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this extreme right-wing politician. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the guests of honor at Bolsanaro’s inauguration ceremony to the Presidency in Brasilia and, at the beginning of April 2019, Bolsonaro visited Israel and received the kind of royal welcome that the State of Israel usually only bestows upon the President of the United States. In a meeting at a business forum in Jerusalem, Bolsonaro said to Netanyahu, “we are like a couple that has just become engaged.”
In the 2018 presidential elections, the economist Fernando Haddad was the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate, but Bolsonaro’s unofficial rival was actually Lula da Silva, the head of the Workers’ Party and former President of Brazil, who at the time was serving a prison sentence, having been convicted on corruption charges. In November 2018, Bolsonaro appointed Sergio Moro, the judge who sent Lula to jail, as the Minister of Justice. In June 2019, it was revealed that Moro had been in contact with the prosecutors against Lula and actively worked to incriminate him. This revelation brought public calls to overturn Lula’s conviction and the opening of an investigation against Moro himself. In November 2019 Lula was released from prison in the wake of an unprecedented ruling by the Brazilian Supreme Court, according to which a person can be imprisoned only after all appeals have been exhausted.
As opposed to the norm in the State of Israel, the warm embrace that the Netanyahu government gave Bolsonaro has been subjected to very widespread criticism by the Israeli press and the public here. It does not appear that there is any real disagreement that Bolsonaro is one of the most dangerous world leaders today. Prior to his election, Bolsonaro served in the Brazil National Congress and was identified with the back benches – the marginal, but loud members of the extreme right. For years, Bolsonaro repeatedly expressed support for torture, the reestablishment of a military dictatorship, violence against women, the extermination of indigenous populations and even the detention and killings of members of the LGBTQ community and members of leftist and workers’ parties. Bolsonaro claimed that he prefers to be compared to Hitler than to a gay person, and that Hitler was a great strategist.
Immediately after his presidential visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Bolsonaro said in an interview that the Nazis were leftists.
Netanyahu’s support for Bolsonaro, his official visit to Brazil, and Bolsonaro’s visit to Israel a few days prior to the April 2019 elections – all were an inseparable part of the Likud campaign (“Netanyahu has turned Israel into a world superpower!”) and, therefore, were portrayed as an opportunistic gesture on the prime minister’s part.
The relationship goes beyond opportunism, to a historic fear in Israeli governments about the Brazilian left’s solidarity with the Palestinian people. Documents from the Foreign Ministry in the Israeli State Archives that have been revealed in the last few weeks show that Lula and his party were marked as enemies of the State of Israel already 35 years ago. This article is based on a few dozen documents from the thousands that are in the files that have been declassified at my request in the last few weeks. These cables were never published before.
The years 1981 to 1985 were critical years in Brazil for the transition from a military dictatorship that committed crimes against humanity to a democratic regime, and the Israeli documents make clear that Israel preferred the continuation of the generals’ rule and their methods of oppression, because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In 1981, Brazil’s last military dictator, João Figueiredo, froze negotiations with the Brazilian Congress and decided to continue the army’s rule of the country, and Israel supported the move because of the stance of the Workers’ Party on Palestine. “[F]rom the perspective of Israel and from the perspective of the Jewish community, the development is positive,” Yitzhak Nissim, advisor to the Israeli Embassy in Brasilia, wrote the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem in a letter dated December 19, 1981. “The chances have greatly increased that the ruling party will maintain its majority in the 1982 elections and continue and that also after 1984, the President will be a military figure. For now, the chances of the PT Party [Workers Party], which identifies completely with the PLO, of seriously increasing its strength have lessened, and also the chances have decreased of a revival of the anti-Semitic right-wing parties. In general, it’s possible to say that it is easier for the Arabs to gain support from civil politicians than from military people with whom it is more difficult to communicate and who are much less corrupt.”
In a cable that was sent to the Ministry on November 12, 1981, Nissim warned that the leader of the PT Party praised the Brazilian Foreign Ministry’s policy of support for the Palestinian people. Lula first shows up two weeks later. In a cable on November 25, Nissim reported on the outcome of the parliamentary elections, in the House of Representatives, and for Brazilian state governors, and expressed satisfaction from “the leftist PT Party’s failure, mainly in its base in Sao Paolo, under the leadership of a workers leader know as Lula, who explicitly and strongly expressed his support for the PLO, within the framework of his distinctly anti-Israel stance.”
In a cable from December 15, 1982, Nissim wrote that the PT Party condemns the raid of the Federal Police and arrests of participants in the Communist Party in Sao Paolo. Nissim argued that the quick action of the police testified to “its willingness to fight against the communist movement and against every movement that might endanger the regime.”
At the beginning of April 1983, there were riots and demonstrations in Sao Paolo stemming from the economic crisis and the slowness of the transition to democracy. Israel was following the unrest, tried to understand how big was the part of the Brazilian left in it, and to predict who will have the upper hand – the military or the civilian forces. What is interesting is, that despite Israel’s hope that its friends in the military would win, the Israeli representative in Brazil understood the rise of the left was organic.
In a cable on April 8, 1983, Ephraim Eldar, the Israeli Consul in the city, claimed that these events proved that it was wrong to weaken the power of the political police, which was among the central groups responsible for suppression and torture in San Paolo:
“Now these events show the political naivete and fatal error committed by the state government in neutralizing/eliminating the Department of Social and Political Order (DOPS) and that lack of its use of its archives where there were essential details. Regarding these intentions, during the election, constant declarations were heard about the elimination of this policing body, which according to the opinion of the heads of the PMDB Party [the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement], is preventing the formation of a democratic spirit, but in reality, the last few days it has been proven how misleading this approach is. In the hands of the regime, there are names of people belonging to leftist labor PT, who is headed by a leader named Lula, as well as some members of the Communist Party and the heads of the students organization. On the other hand, there is general agreement that much of the group that committed violence have criminal records or are simply a mob.”
Although Eldar expressed a shocking support for the continuation of political oppression, he acknowledged that genuine social problems were fueling the uprising.
“[D]espite the situation’s return to its former state, in the longer run, the social problems concealed behind the disturbances – unemployment, exploitation of the poorer strata according to a neo-federal formula, are likely to cause social unrest for this country and its unstable economy.”
Lula’s appeal was concerning to the Israelis.
In a cable from November 11, 1983, Eldar wrote about rumors that those responsible for the riots in Sau Paolo were military elements that wished to prove that the state was not ready to move to a civil government. But Eldar doubted that. “It’s not impossible that the stronger driving force was the leftist party PT headed by their charismatic leader Luiz inácio Lula da Silva who controls tens of thousands of workers in the biggest industrial factories in the suburbs of the city and on the city slums. Aside from him – even if not with full cooperation- the process was accomplished by the Communist Party of Brazil.”
Again, Eldar acknowledged the deterioration of the economic situation in Brazil. But he said that “this phenomenon is exploited by the parties and especially by those on the left-of-center, for whom the exploited citizen, through unemployment and underprivilege, is the best and most convenient fighter, who is not even in need of much ‘propaganda’ to express, in one way or another, his anger and discontent.”
In a cable dated December 6, 1984, Rahamim Timor, the Israeli ambassador in Brasilia, wrote that “the party identified as a leftist party is the PT, members of which are Lula, the trade unions leader, who is in contact with the PLO representatives, and Ayrton Soares, who works in cooperation with the Arab embassies in Brasilia as a collaborator with the PLO and in anti-Israeli activity. Soares’ mother is an Arab.”
The Brazilian military dictatorship finally ended in 1985, with the election of a civil government, ultimately led by Jose Sarney (after the elected president was stricken with illness). But the State of Israel continued to be concerned by the legalization and strengthening of the left and the democratization of Brazil, and wished that its friends in the military would keep their status in the country The Israeli representatives in Brazil had difficult time in adjusting to the fast changing reality.
In a cable two weeks after Sarney’s inauguration, the Israeli ambassador Timor wrote that “the first step towards the legalization (of the communist parties) was the decision to cancel the governmental prohibition of having an umbrella organization for professional organizations (…) In any case, the left has already laid down the groundwork. Personal appointments, the legalization of organizations and shows of strength in the universities relating to appointments – increase the chances that the legalization will materialize.”
Timor wrote that this development stands in contradiction to Israeli interests because of the strength of the Arab lobby in Brazil:
“For us, this development is definitely not positive. We have a number of friends among the socialists, but definitely none among the communist. The left here – with the cooperation of the Arab lobby, which today is vulnerable to pressure by extremist elements and the Arabic embassies in Brasilia and the struggle towards formal recognition of the PLO – we are afraid that now the pressure will escalate. The first indications of the “coming out” of the communist parties into public space were already seen on the presidential inauguration day. The Israeli delegation, on its way to the inauguration ceremony, was met by pejorative calls originating from groups gathered around red flags (calling – “murderers”, “terrorists,” “hail the PLO,” etc.).”
According to Ambassador Timor, Israel’s difficulties did not originate only from the renewal of the communist parties’ activities in public space but from the democratic change itself:
“In any case the openness of the public and in the universities does not make our work any easier, particularly given the limited personnel and budgets. The main front with which we have to confront today, from an informational standpoint, is the Congress and then the press and universities, and we attempt to prepare accordingly, despite not having the appropriate tools.”
The democratic process was alarming to Israeli officials, who preferred the order of military rule.
In a cable from May 16, 1985 ambassador Timor wrote that the rules and regulations which regulate the establishment of political parties were simplified and softened, and the right to vote in the elections was granted to about thirty million illiterates. In spite of these positive developments, Ambassador Timor added that they empowered Lula, who was running for president. He lamented that the workers’ organizations, which have returned to being legitimate with the transition to a democratic regime, “are guided by the communist and leftist parties such as PT, they were able to agitate the workers and bring about long strikes in the metal industry.”
“Car factories have been closed for weeks, which has hampered the production and export of cars and even paralyzed a number of armament plants (which produce half-track vehicles) that are also dependent on parts manufactured by car factories. More strikes broke out in public transport, the Ministry of Communications, airline workers and more. In the coming days we are expecting strikes in commercial areas, the essential services (water, electricity) and even a physicians’ strike.”
Ambassador Timor concluded the cable by mentioning the great difficulty in predicting where these events would lead Brazil:
“One thing is certain – the stability and monotony that characterized the military governments for 20 years will never return to Brazil.”
In a cable from Nov. 14, 1985, Timor wrote that: “The army is the only body that preserves stability and continuity and, despite its avoiding intervention in the recent processes, its quiet presence is certainly felt even in the present political constellation (…) the left is strengthening, both in and out of the Congress, and we expect concurrently the strengthening to Congress’ power, especially after the new constitution is applied, as well as strengthening of the leftist power within Congress (…) the media and various power groups, such as trade unions, student organizations etc., will have a far greater impact on public opinion and, unfortunately, here too, our opponents exceed in number our supporters, and we have to prepare accordingly.”
Ambassador Timor concluded with the question: “What will be the final stop? How will the rapid flow of events end up – will it be with another military coup d’état, with the rise of the left or the moderate democratic forces remaining in power, only time will tell.”
In a cable from November 20, 1985 Ambassador Timor reported that the PT Party had won the mayoral elections in Fortaleza, the capital of the State of Ceará, and even gained an impressive achievement in the city of São Paolo: “in light of these results, it is possible to determine that the PT is the “dark horse” of these elections. The party proved that although it was on the extreme of the political map, it has a powerful attraction which is strong not only in the large urban centers (where the presence of a leftist party is more natural), but also in small and less ‘proletarian’ towns and that it upholds a country-wide presence.”
In a cable from December 12, 1985, Timor wrote that “there is no doubt that the left is strengthening in Brazil and it is particularly prominent as it could not speak out in Brazil during the 21 years of military regime. The left acts like a steam jet that has long been imprisoned in a sealed chamber, and now it is bursting in full power, but it can be estimated that the leftist pressure, which pushed aside the right and the center, will diminish in power and the political forces will eventually balance out.”
Timor reported that in private conversations he was told that the military did not want to return to power at this time, as it had no suitable solutions, especially in the social-economic field, where 21 years of military rule had caused a severe crisis. Though sometimes the army was able to hint to the left not to go too far. The ambassador added: “we are of course aware of the importance of the army and its strength, and we foster relationships with the high senior officers.”
In embracing Bolsonaro, Netanyahu did not reinvent the wheel. This is a history that repeats itself. The State of Israel did not learn any lessons from the disgrace of its relationships with the military dictatorship in Brazil, which tortured thousands and disappeared hundreds of citizens.
Today as in the past, an anti-democratic regime and a fascist ruler seem to the Israeli government to be those who will best serve its interests, through silencing or eliminating the critics of the occupation of the Palestinian territories .