Dueling visits to Brazil by the presidents of Israel and Iran are showing the South American powerhouse's growing role in Mideast diplomacy.
Israeli President Shimon Peres opens a visit to Brazil on Tuesday, in the Jewish state's latest bid to battle growing Iranian influence in Latin America. Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is due on Nov. 23, and Brazilian officials say Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas may visit later this month.
The visits follow a July trip by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to Brazil, during which time he tried to enlist help in stymieing Iran's alleged effort to build a nuclear weapon.
During his seven years in office, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has maintained a broad range of ties around the world _ from Cuba's Castro brothers to former President George W. Bush to Ahmadinejad _ and analysts say he is becoming a key player in Israel's diplomatic struggles.
"This is a chance for the Brazilians to perhaps play a constructive role in the Middle East peace process and to demonstrate a greater grasp and involvement in one of the issues most critical to world peace," said Ray Walser, with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank.
Brazil, Latin America's most populous country, has emerged as an economic powerhouse in recent years, and appears to be gaining a diplomatic punch to match. It has become a voice for poor countries in the G-20. And adding to its influence, some foreign governments see it as the moderate voice of Latin America's leftist-led countries.
Gaining Brazilian support would lend credibility to Iran's government, something that Israel wants to avoid, analysts say.
Israel views Iran as a major strategic threat, fearing it is developing a nuclear weapon and noting its development of long-range ballistic missiles. Concerns have been sharpened by Ahmadinejad's repeated references to the destruction of the Jewish state.
Israeli officials have expressed concern over Iran's growing ties with leftist governments in Latin America.
Iranian companies are building apartments, cars, tractors and bicycles in Venezuela and the countries' leaders have exchanged visits. Iran has also opened embassies in Bolivia and Nicaragua, and an Israeli report recently suggested that Bolivia and Venezuela were supplying uranium to Iran _ an allegation denied by both countries.
Peres' visit will be the first by an Israeli president to Brazil in more than four decades. He is meeting with Brazil's defense minister on Tuesday and is expected to meet with Silva on Wednesday. Also on the trip are 40 Israeli business leaders.
In interviews with the Brazilian press published Sunday, Peres played down expectations he will discuss at length the Iran issue with Silva during the visit, which Israeli officials have said will mainly be about trade and ties.
He told the O Globo newspaper he would briefly mention Iran, saying he "doesn't think it's right to visit a country to debate about another."
Asked if he thought Brazil, given its good relations with both Israel and Iran, might be a good nation to help temper Iran's supposed nuclear ambitions, Peres said: "Maybe. But I don't have this expectation."
Brazil's president, during the U.N. General Assembly in September, defended Iran's right to have a nuclear program for energy and called it a "great partner."
Associated Press Writer Matti Friedman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.