Following in the Trump administration’s footsteps, Brazil’s president-elect has announced that he will move his embassy to Jerusalem.
Jair Bolsonaro, dubbed “the Trump of Brazil,” applies the same logic as the American president: It is Israel’s prerogative to choose its capital and other countries shouldn’t object. “Israel is a sovereign state and we shall duly respect that,” he announced.
It’s a Trump-like decision from a Trump-like leader, but don’t think for a moment that America and Brazil are similar cases in relation to Israel. In fact, what makes Brazil’s decision so remarkable is its context.
The American embassy move was in the pipeline for more than two decades. The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act demanded the relocation. True, it gave presidents the power to waive the move and many people expected this to happen indefinitely, but nevertheless, Trump’s decision didn’t come out of the blue.
Brazil, by contrast, is a country that just eight years ago said that it considers the West Bank and other areas that Israel has controlled as of 1967 to be Palestine. At the time, in 2010, Brazil recognized Palestinian statehood, answering a call from Ramallah at the height of its push for unilateral statehood, for international players to recognize a Palestinian state.
In fact, Brazil went even further. It “was a pioneer in pushing other South American countries” to recognize a Palestinian state, noted Arie Kacowicz, an international relations professor at Hebrew University.
It takes some absorbing that Brazil could actually end up locating its diplomatic mission to Israel on ground that it has designated “Palestine.”
In all likelihood it will locate the embassy in the western, not the eastern, part of the city, making this a theoretical point, but the mixed messages that its positions of the last decade send highlight the extent of the U-turn that Brazil is making. Bolsonaro has also suggested that he would close or downgrade the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic mission in Brasilia.
This is the same country that went head-to-head with Israel over its choice of ambassador to the United Nations. In 2015 Israel appointed Dani Dayan, formerly a settler leader, and Brazil objected and informally rejected him.
Israel’s prime minister rushed to call Bolsonaro when he was elected last week, and said he is “certain that your election will lead to a great friendship between our peoples and the tightening of links between Brazil and Israel.” Upon hearing about the embassy decision, Benjamin Netanyahu lauded it as “historic” and called it an “exciting step.”
The big change from Brazil is exhilarating for Bibi, but it actually tells a story of Israeli vulnerability as well as Israeli diplomatic success. For it shows how, in today’s volatile political environment, the big shifts we are seeing in national politics in various countries can quickly impact policy towards Israel. Currently, the changes favor Israel, but today pendulums swing very quickly.
Kacowicz noted that Bolsonaro’s recognition came shortly after a warm visit to Israel by the hardline Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and as the relationship between Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban seems increasingly close. Kacowicz said: “The fact that Israel is so aligned with right-wing leaders in Central and Eastern Europe and elsewhere means Netanyahu is taking a very dangerous bet in terms of Israeli foreign policy. It seems that this wave of the right is going to continue, but it may not continue forever.”
Diplomats here have generally aimed at bipartisan or multi-partisan support overseas, and tried to avoid becoming subject to the changing winds of domestic politics around the world. Brazil’s move will lead the international community, increasingly, to see Jerusalem as an issue for the populist right.
Bolsonaro’s political brand is built on controversial stances and words. He has defended torture and the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985. He called immigrants “the scum of the world,” said that the United Nation’s International Human Rights Day should be called “the day of the losers,” and said that he would be incapable of loving a son if he were gay and that such a child would be better off dead.
None of this delegitimizes Israel or Israel’s desire to see Jerusalem more widely acknowledged as its capital. But when Bolsonaro and Trump, two controversial figures, are the only leaders of large nations moving embassies to Jerusalem, it could make it harder for Israel to encourage others to follow suit.
Imagine how different conversations would be for Israeli diplomats if the Australian prime minister, who was recently mulling relocating his embassy, had decided to do so. It could have really mainstreamed the idea. Bolsonaro’s announcement has done the opposite.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.