In July 2014, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor described Brazil as a “diplomatic dwarf” after the South American country recalled its ambassador to Israel during the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip known as Operation Protective Edge. The remark triggered a crisis that reached its peak in 2015 when then-President Dilma Rousseff of the center-left Workers’ Party refused to receive the credentials of Dany Dayan as new Israeli ambassador to Brazil, citing his role as a proponent of the illegal settlers’ movement.
Four years later, in an astonishing turn of events, relations between Tel Aviv and Brasília are poised to become the closest since Brazil recognized Israel when it was established in 1948.
This change takes place amidst a rightward shift in Brazilian politics marked by the election of former military Captain Jair Bolsonaro to Brazil’s presidency. Bolsonaro will assume his new role on 1 January, 2019, after nearly 30 years of military and public service riddled with xenophobia, racist speeches, and admiration for the brutal Brazilian military regime (1964-1985).
Bolsonaro was propelled into victory by a palatable sense of crisis gripping Brazilians, particularly in light of a string of corruption incidents within the Workers’ Party and the impeachment of Rouseef in 2016. He preyed on these developments, presenting himself as an “anti-politician” who stands against the status quo, and the one who would “save the country from communists and terrorists.”
In this outlook, Bolsonaro’s fundamental foreign policy doctrine is to end what he views as “ideological relations” established during successive Workers’ Party governments, mainly with countries of the Global South, upending decades of Brazilian diplomatic tradition.
A case in point is his decision to relocate the Brazilian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem once he is inaugurated. Brazil has maintained a careful balance between Arab countries and Israel since the end of the World War II, and has recognized Palestine as a state in 2010, with both countries establishing embassies in Brasilia and the West Bank. But, under Bolsonaro’s leadership, the balance will tip in favor of Israel, especially in light of reports that he also intends to sever diplomatic ties with Palestine.
Two motivations are driving Bolsonaro’s foreign policy. The first is international and related to the United States. Bolsonaro stressed that he intends to align himself with the Trump administration, seeing in Donald Trump “a nationalist colleague,” in his words. The new relationship with Washington would not only be a result of the ideological proximity between the two leaders, but would also serve as a platform for Bolsonaro to differentiate himself from the Workers’ Party. During the governments of Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva and his protégé Rousseff, Brazil, in Bolsonaro´s view, became too close with countries of “little importance” in Africa and the Middle East. Lula was particularly active in promoting Brazil on the international stage, opening a record number of embassies in Asia and Africa and even attempting to mediate a nuclear agreement with Iran in conjunction with Turkey. Hence, Bolsonaro’s decision to emulate the Trump administration’s position on Israel and Palestine is a logical result of his foreign policy doctrine.
Secondly, Bolsonaro is keen to appease a key group that supported him during the election: the neo-Pentecostal evangelical population. In the last decade, the population that identifies itself as evangelical has grown more than 60% in Brazil, and has become one of the most important political forces in the country. This growth was followed by a record number of religiously oriented mayors, governors and senators who were elected in 2018. According to analysts, the election of Bolsonaro was only possible because of the massive support of this religious group. Edir Macedo, a prominent evangelical leader and owner of a television channel that supported Bolsonaro, built “The New Temple of Solomon” in the city of São Paulo, where he prays in rabbinical garments and in the presence of the “Ark of the Covenant.” In this display, Israel is seen by this religious community as the “Holy Land” that must be protected. It is no coincidence that in 2016 Bolsonaro was baptized in the Jordan River during an official visit to the country.
Despite presenting the embassy change as “somewhat trivial,” relations between Brazil and Israel under Bolsonaro may have important consequences, especially regarding military cooperation and human rights.
In a message welcoming Bolsonaro’s election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reinforced the essential character of Brazil as one of the key nations in Latin America for Israel. This importance is well reflected in technological and military exchanges between both countries. In 2015, Brazil was among the top 10 countries importing Israeli weapons, mostly “counterinsurgency” and “crowd control” equipment. During the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian police and military officers conducted “anti-terrorist” training supported by Israeli companies. At the same time, Brazilian´s newspapers underlined the tactical similarity in dealing with “Palestinian terrorists and bandits in Rio de Janeiro.” The city’s current mayor pointed out that Rio should mirror Jerusalem, “using walls to ward off populations that threaten the wellbeing of us all.” The state governor Wilson Witzel similarly declared an interest in acquiring “armed drones from Israel” to counter drug traffickers in the city. In the same year, São Paulo State Police renewed a contract for its armored vehicles fleet with Tel Aviv companies. With Bolsonaro advancing the notion that Brazil is under threat, greater support for these relations is likely to increase and spread across the country.
Bolsonaro’s re-orientation of Brazil’s foreign policy on Israel and Palestine may, however, prove difficult. In addition to the importance of the Palestinian cause to several Brazilian political forces, navigating commercial relations with the Arab world may become problematic. Currently, Brazil has a trade surplus with numerous countries in the Arab World. Trade lobbyists from a number of industries are likely to advocate that Bosonaro’s shift on Israel and Palestine would agitate Arab partners. It is not clear to what extent countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan could, or would, impose sanctions on Brazil. However, the political and diplomatic capital Brazil has accumulated for decades as a nation that respects international law would certainly be diminished.