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Who’s afraid of the diplomatic dwarf?

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A name-slinging diplomatic quarrel has erupted between Brazil and Israel over the Gaza war. But does Brazil really have the clout or track record to weigh in on international human rights issues? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights. Português, Español

Guilherme Casarões
22 August 2014

Among the many debates raging about the recent Gaza conflict, an unlikely diplomatic quarrel has erupted between Brazil and Israel. As the Brazilian government pulled out its ambassador from Tel Aviv for “consultation”, condemning Israeli military acts in Gaza as disproportionate, the Netanyahu administration reacted with blunt indignation. While some degree of disappointment on Israel’s part was expected, few predictedf that an irate declaration by spokesman Yigal Palmor would seriously undermine already shaky bilateral relations.

Palmor called Brazil a “diplomatic dwarf”, whose “moral relativism” made it “an irrelevant partner”. The Israeli spokesman even brought up Brazil’s humiliating defeat in the World Cup to lecture Brazilians on “disproportionate results”. While many brushed off the outspoken tone as evidence of Israel’s diplomatic truculence, the message resounded loudly through Itamaraty, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Scholars, commentators and politicians immediately began ruminating as to whether Brazil had enough political clout to have a say in Middle Eastern affairs. After all, in contrast to the condemnation of Israeli military actions—which Rousseff’s advisor described as “genocide”, only to later be toned down by the president herself as a “massacre”—not much has been said about Syria, Iraq or any other major human rights violations around the globe.

Yet, Brazil’s human rights policies, even if overcautious at times, have been generally coherent across time and space. The Rousseff administration duly condemned violations in Libya and Syria on the multilateral level, especially throughout 2011. Brazil has maintained a low-key strategy, often involving informal coalitions or regional institutions, to delineate between its own positions and Western calls for military intervention. 

Although results have been elusive, the Brazilian government has not been oblivious to human rights violations in the Arab world. The same goes for Iran, with whom Brazil developed strong ties during the late Lula years. Avoiding the “naming and shaming” approach was necessary to keep dialogue open in the nuclear question. That allowed president Lula, together with Turkish prime-minister Erdogan, to broker a nuclear fuel-swap deal in May 2010, in what most likely represented the most audacious (and controversial) foreign policy move of the two emerging powers. 

Most of the pessimists about Brazil’s global role also overlook the fact that the country has been advocating for Mideast peace for five straight decades, having sponsored UNSC Resolution 242 and many subsequent resolutions that demanded complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Moreover, the Brazilian government has been attempting to present itself as a mediator in the Middle East since at least the early 2000s. 

Reaching out to both Israel and the Palestinians, however, has been no easy task. Brazilian authorities regard the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an asymmetrical one, in which there is an oppressor and an oppressed. This is one of the reasons why Brazil has long abandoned an even-handed approach to the conflict and has often stood up for the Palestinian cause. 

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Juliana Spinola/Demotix (All rights reserved)

A candle-lit vigil was held in Sao Paulo to remember those who have died in Gaza following airstrikes by the Israeli military.


Over the last decade, Brazil has offered financial aid to Gaza, recognized Palestinian sovereignty, and supported its bid for UN membership, in line with Itamaraty’s principles of self-determination and peaceful settlement of disputes. It has also systematically condemned Israel’s disproportionate use of force against the Palestinians, while acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself. 

Brasilia has also, however, attempted to keep channels of dialogue open with the Israeli government. Bilateral trade has grown by more than 200% between 2002 and 2011, stimulated by the Mercosur-Israel free trade agreement signed in 2007. Lula’s foreign minister, Celso Amorim, paid no less than five visits to Israel in eight years. The president himself went to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in 2010, being the first Brazilian statesman to officially visit that country. Amorim’s successor, Antonio Patriota, also made a diplomatic trip to Israel in 2012, when he sought to improve bilateral relations with the Jewish state. 

But the fact is that Israel, regardless of recent disagreements, has never really considered Brazil an acceptable broker. The widespread perception among Israeli policy-makers and in society at large is that Brazil has pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian or—even more dramatic— anti-Zionist foreign policy orientations. Although the infamous “Zionism equals Racism” UN resolution is long defunct, Israel will not forget the vote that the Brazilian government cast back in 1975 to the international condemnation of the Jewish state.

The bitter lesson of power politics came when Operation Pillar of Defence was set in motion in late 2012. Through many platforms such as Mercosur, IBSA and the UN, the Brazilian government charged Israel with disproportionate use of force, perhaps with an eye on changing the status quo. But no matter how loud Brazil was, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem paid little attention. 

With the outbreak of the recent war in Gaza, Itamaraty reacted as it had in the last decade. A note issued on July 17 “vehemently” condemned the Israeli bombings against the Palestinian population as disproportionate use of force, while at the same time denouncing the launching of rockets and mortars from Gaza against Israel. But as the war progressed and made human costs unbearable, the Brazilian government raised the tone, pulling out its ambassador on the 24th. All subtleties of diplomatic parlance aside, it was a new strategy—one that represented a change of emphasis, not of course. Unlike previous attempts to break the deadlock, this one met an immediate response. 

Was the Brazilian attitude successful? To be fair, Brazil’s decision was a turning point in how Latin American countries had been addressing the conflict. The same happened with the Brazilian recognition of a Palestinian state in late 2010, which was followed by several of its neighbours. Although Ecuador had paved the way by withdrawing its own ambassador one week before Brazil, it most likely was president Rousseff’s decision to do so that changed the diplomatic landscape. In the week that followed, Chile, Peru and El Salvador also recalled their representatives in Tel Aviv. Bolivia went as far as to declare Israel a “terrorist state”. 

Yet no Israeli reaction was so outraged as the one against Brazil. Perhaps the visceral, and even infantile, statement of the Israeli spokesman reveals that not only is his country sensitive to diplomatic pressure—when applied skilfully—but also that Brazil is decidedly not a diplomatic dwarf, at least as far as the Middle East is concerned.

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