Israeli mishap in Latin America?

A diplomatic incident between Brazil and Israel shows how Netanyahu is prisoner of his extreme-right and ultra-nationalists coalition friends. Español

Ignacio Klich
17 May 2016



.Israeli soldiers stand behind a Palestinian protestor holding a flag of Brazil, who recognized an independent Palestinian state. Ramalah, Dec. 2010. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)"Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy." Not always so valid an observation, this one by Henry Kissinger, contentious recipient of the Nobel peace prize, allows us to analyse an episode of undoubted impact on the state of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition: the appointment in March of Daniel Dayan as Israeli consul in the US, after failing to have him accredited as ambassador to Brasilia.

In 1947 Brazil had led at the United Nations (UN) the Latin American majority favourable to the idea of partitioning Palestine and creating two states, one Palestinian Arab and the other Jewish. But the rest of the region’s major countries and other Latin American states such as Argentina, Mexico and others, did not accompany Brazil on this occasion. Rejecting the territorial loss, among other losses, that the creation of Israel implied, the Arab world and the Palestinian leadership of the 1940s tried to prevent it. Their military defeat first resulted in the Jewish appropriation of lands corresponding to the Palestinian state, and in 1967 the Israeli occupation of all of that state that had never come to be.

Later –especially from 1977–, the almost continuous succession of Israeli ultranationalist governments was increasingly criticised in Latin America, and a non-binding International Court of Justice ruling declared illegal their settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Also, at Brazil’s behest, since 2010 recognition of the Palestinian state has increased, without bringing it to realization, and partition was invoked by countries like Uruguay to bring that state into being.

Dayan is Argentine, and a former leader of the umbrella organisation of illegal settlement communities, and as such, for the residents of these, he is their "foreign minister" (although Brasilia would have been his first diplomatic assignment). His credentials contrast with the previous envoy. Of the few Arabs in Israeli diplomacy, Reda Mansour, of Druze descent, was briefly ambassador in Brasilia from August 2014, after having held previously the same position in Quito.

While family reasons were cited, it is possible and likely, although not guaranteed, that his ambassadorship came to an end after Mansour's shedding light on a controversial aspect of the Israeli performance in Syria: Israel’s provision of medical care to members of al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and a stop to it which he requested after twenty Druze were massacred there.

Half of the world's Druze population lives in Syria and they have been the victims of the ethnic cleansing of everything other than Sunni Islam that is promoted by the al-Qaeda franchisee and other groups, terrorists in the eyes of those fighting the government in Damascus and in the eyes of the government. Unheeded, Mansour's objection may have been punished, as it exposed a limitation of the Israeli commitment to the fight against terrorism. Months before, ignoring the political implications of their aiding al-Qaeda, already over 2,100 Syrians had been treated by Israel.

Defeated in his run for election to the Knesset in 2015, Dayan undeniably forms part of the advance of Israel’s ultranationalists. His party, Jewish Home, joined the ruling coalition with its leader Naftali Bennett as Minister of Education. Noticeably eager for the prime minister's office, Bennett is retained by Netanyahu as a guarantee that the government will not abandon its opposition to a Palestinian state, even if the ruling coalition did manage to attract some of the shrinking number of proponents of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This supports the Kissingerian observation on how domestic politics occupies the space of Israeli foreign policy.

According to the honorary president of the Peres Centre for Peace, Netanyahu's choice of coalition partners is part of his anti-Palestinian strategy. And some, more explicit than the prime minister himself, appear to cling to the illusion that the passage of time will force Israel's weakened neighbours to recognise that a Palestinian state will never be born.

With that backdrop, former Brazilian diplomats and lawmakers and three former Israeli ambassadors urged the government of Dilma Rousseff to reject Dayan. To accept him was inconsistent with Brazil's opposition to the occupation of Palestinian land in 1967. In addition, learning of his designation through a tweet exacerbated a certain discomfort in the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, already having been fuelled by the Israeli-Palestinian eruption of 2014, when disapproval of the tenor of the Israeli offensive in Gaza led Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador and Peru to summon their ambassadors to Israel. In addition, Brazil and other Mercosur members, Paraguay excluded, called urgently for a ceasefire. As unfruitful as their Mercosur partners, a similar Paraguayan request demonstrated the futility of a more polite phrasing.

The official Israeli response caricaturised Brazil as a diplomatic "pygmy", a vexatious nickname even before considering any racist undertone to a comparison to such a black racial group, and even more insulting to a party seriously interested in joining the Security Council as a permanent member. Exasperation could only grow with Israel's advertising of the appointment of Dayan before it was approved by Brazil. They had even failed to seek such an approval, only requested in September, a failure that could be read as a provocation of a Netanyahu attempting to impose Dayan.

Learning of the appointment of Dayan through unofficial channels left Rousseff in the company of the Pope and the US President, among others. After Jorge Bergoglio was appointed Pope, Netanyahu invited himself to meet with him, taking advantage of his get together in Rome with the chief US diplomat. But Francisco received the Israeli premier on a different date, as the Holy See requires that such visits are properly arranged in advance.

Some explain all of these coordination problems by underlining the lack of leadership in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, having been headed since 2015 by Netanyahu, who uses it as carrot for possible coalition partners. But the aforementioned is not just a catalogue of diplomatic gaffes. It is also a possible display of arrogance by someone who already allowed himself to humiliate President Barack Obama, lobbying the US Congress against the nuclear deal with Iran. Greeting such behaviour with impunity can encourage recidivism. No surprise, then, that some time before, El Salvador found out through the press that Israel had decided to close its embassy there for budgetary reasons, or that Obama similarly learned of the cancellation of a scheduled meeting with Netanyahu before his Latin American tour, a meeting requested by the Israeli premier.

Although it is not the only beneficiary of the chief superpower's loss of power, this has been profitable for an Israel with first world economic figures and equipped with an arsenal of first military power in the Middle East. It follows then that former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami could say, without being accused of being ultranationalist, that Israel enjoys a global influence without precedent, despite the international community rejecting its attitude towards the Palestinians. Formerly in US hands, this quota of power now redistributed among others comes together in Israel with a Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely, of great ideological zeal, but lacking in tact and sufficient expertise. Her appeal to the Brazilian Jewish community to promote the assignment of Dayan was at odds with, incidentally, that which is often heard about the importance to Israel of the Jews of the world.

Folha de S. Paulo carried a piece alerting that in issues affecting both countries a Jewish turnaround "in a certain direction" could affect their community. Awkwardly phrased, this allowed the president of the Brazilian Jewish community to qualify such a piece as antisemitic, without taking advantage of the occasion to question Hotovely's words, which were as bad as the insinuation of dual loyalty by that Sao Paulo daily paper. The anti-Dayan manoeuvres of Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, were considered a betrayal by countless Israelis, not only the supporters of an Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. No surprise, then, if more than one Brazilian were to consider it disloyal that Hotovely would instigate a Jewish mobilisation against the government and, as when it rains it pours, even think it possible that these Jews would be more loyal to Israel than to Brazil.

Despite its fruitlessness, Israel continued to seek supports and allies. For its honorary consul in Rio, "rejecting the resident of an area under joint Israeli-Palestinian administration means creating second-class citizens in a country that does not accept such a thing, not even for their non-Jewish citizens." Without forgetting the few Arab high office-holders -mainly Druze-, whether in the judiciary and the Israeli foreign service, its armed forces, police and so on, as well as its deputy ministers, this statement bears qualifying with that noted in Washington about the Arab minority in Israel, discriminated institutionally and societally, or the European criticism of "official expressions of racism" towards them. Not in vain did Ahmed Tibi, lawmaker of the Israeli Arab citizens’ Joint List, underline that there are more than 50 laws that discriminate openly against them. Israel, after all, is a democracy, mostly for its Jews. But for a former CIA analyst, now an affiliated researcher at an American university, the above renders the self-proclaimed sole democracy in the Middle East less democratic than Tunisia.

Neither the damage to relations by the absence of an ambassador, nor the concern among the Brazilian military, learnt of after the Israeli defence minister addressed his Brazilian counterpart, altered the situation. In any case, Celso Amorim, a former Brazilian diplomat and defence chief, raised the stakes: it was time to reduce military dependence on Israel. Shortly thereafter, Embraer, the large Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, distanced itself from the local subsidiary of Elbit, an Israeli company involved in a variety of military projects.

From the 1980s, Elbit provided avionic components for combat aircraft and other airplanes of the Brazilian airforce as well as design and technology for a satellite, with local production of Israeli drones purchased by Brazil, Chile and Colombia perhaps being the element with foremost commercial potential in the region. But the cancellation of one of the major trade agreements, pushed for when Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Brazil in 2009, was due to various factors. Already in 2014 the state of Rio Grande do Sul set aside an agreement with Elbit, in the absence of expected federal funds. The Brazilian economic crisis exacerbated the shortage of funding. Added to this were protests by local Palestinians, other Brazilian entities and the Palestinian embassy, all highlighting the fact that Elbit had aided the Israeli offensive against Gaza and its separation wall in the West Bank.

Insisting with Dayan had its cost, then, especially if the absence of another candidate was read as a bet on the part of Netanyahu in favour of Rousseff's impeachment, and further, as obstructing the re-election of her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (who had a key role in the early pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, as well as encouraging regional recognition of Palestine, and therefore was hardly pleasing to the Israeli ultra-nationalists). Instead, Dayan believes that Brazil seeks to block that residents of contentious settlements may represent Israel abroad. Illustrating the contrary, it was no coincidence that the aforementioned Bennett, inhabitant, as is Dayan, of a settlement of this nature, was selected to represent Israel at the most recent commemoration of the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina.

If Rousseff overcame the destabilizing attempt that an impeachment represented, Netanyahu risked coming off badly in a country in which more than 200 Israeli companies operate. And he would have to choose another ambassador bearing in mind important internal considerations headed by his credibility deficit with his more extreme supporters -, as well as introduce the new candidate in line with the protocol of a highly professional Brazilian Foreign Ministry with a good memory. More quickly, the same would happen if Rousseff was sacked.

The attempt to impose Dayan whichever way possible had become inconvenient. And in March, the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a tender for the top spot in Brasilia and other Israeli embassies. Later retracted and explained as a gaffe, such a bidding exercise appears to have been meant to test public reaction should Israel distance Dayan, himself dissatisfied with the actions taken by his Foreign Ministry, from the Brasilia embassy, thus allowing Netanyahu to avoid granting ammunition to Bennett and others eager to lead the Israeli government.

By the end of 2015, the Israeli press had spoken already of a safety net for Netanyahu on the home front: send Dayan to the US, a destination that he would have preferred from the beginning. It is far from surprising, then, that after eight months of fruitless waiting, Netanyahu agreed that Dayan will be the next consul general in New York, with this lucky winner flaunting his bellicosity in declaring "those who did not want me in Brasilia will have to have me in the capital of the world." A compelling formula, this variant of the previous caricature seems to belittle Brazil again as Lilliputian, as seen from Dayan's future New York outpost.

Before his moving over in the second half of the year, the appointment of Dayan already has sectors of the New York Jewish community concerned for its impact among liberal opinion makers there. A publicist in tune with the devotion of the current government to the settlements and annexation of the occupied territories, Gaza excluded, a compensated future fighter against those American Jews opposed to Netanyahu, temporarily classified by Dayan as "non-Jewish,” will facilitate the selection of an acceptable ambassador to Brazil.

Compared with Israeli treatment of Obama and his Vice President – in 2010, the latter's visit to Jerusalem was the occasion for the announcement of 1,600 additional Israeli homes in contentious territory – Rousseff reaped a victory in resisting the imposition of Dayan. Meanwhile, the ongoing negotiations between hyper-nationalist coalition partners does not remove Netanyahu's suspected bias towards impeachment, especially if its embassy in Brasilia remains vacant.


Translated from the original in Spanish by Katie Oliver, member of DemocraciaAbierta's Volunteer Program

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