On March 31, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro initiated a four-day official visit to Israel. The trip consolidates the improvement of relations between the two countries and reciprocates the visit Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to Brazil on January 1. The prime minister was one of the main international leaders who participated in Bolsonaro’s presidential inauguration in Brasília.
On his first day in Israel, the Brazilian president met with Netanyahu and expressed his love for the Jewish state several times, even trying to pronounce “I love Israel” in Hebrew. According to his own words, it was the beginning of a “more balanced Brazilian foreign policy in the Middle East.” The comment was a clear reference to the governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, from the left wing Brazilian Worker’s Party (PT). In 2014, for example, during a confrontation between Israel and Hamas on the Gaza Strip, Dilma affirmed Israel was using disproportionate force against the Palestinians. The Israeli government criticized the commentary and affirmed Brazil was a “diplomatic dwarf.” In that time, Bolsonaro was a federal deputy and wrote an apology letter to the Israeli embassy in Brazil, getting the support of large sectors of the Brazilian evangelical community.
Bolsonaro’s alignment with Israel was demonstrated on several occasions before and during his presidential campaign. In 2016, he visited the country and was baptized by an evangelical pastor at the Jordan River. During the national elections, in 2018, one of his main promises to attract evangelical support was to move the Brazilian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and close the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic representation in Brasília. Although the evangelical support was not based entirely on this issue, the promise was very appealing, and approximately 11 million evangelicals voted for him.
In light of this, many political analysts and Christian leaders in Brazil were expecting the official announcement of the embassy move would be made on Bolsonaro’s recent trip to Israel. The president, however, announced just the opening of a commercial office in Jerusalem, as an extension of the embassy in Tel Aviv. Some influential evangelical pastors with close ties to Bolsonaro guarantee the commercial office is just a first step until the move of the embassy. But the decision can also be perceived as an attempt to please another group of important domestic allies: Brazilian entrepreneurs who fear economic losses in their commercial relations with Arab countries. The fear is well-based; Brazil is the largest exporter of halal meat in the world. Some members of the Arab League, such as Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, indicated they would retaliate if Brazil moves the embassy.
Parts of the Brazilian military, represented by the Vice President Hamilton Mourão, are also cautious about Brazil’s relations with Israel. Mourão has met with Palestinian Christian leaders in Brasília and tends to be more pragmatic about the Israel-Palestine conflict, prioritizing Brazil’s historical position on it, which has always favored a two-state solution based on the borders established in 1947, before the Six-Day War in 1967. This includes recognizing Jerusalem as an international entity and condemnations of Israel’s rule on the West Bank.
It is noteworthy, however, to highlight that there have been some exceptions to Brazil’s “equidistance” from the conflict in the Middle East. In the 1970s, when the military was in power, the country prioritized its relations with Arab commercial partners, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia. And, as a consequence of this, the country became more involved with the Palestinian cause. In 1975, President Ernesto Geisel even voted in favor of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379, which considered Zionism as a form of racism. In that time, Brazil was seeking a more independent position in the international system, especially in relation to the US.
This episode demonstrates how Brazilian foreign policy to the Middle East is conditioned by the country’s relations with the US. In 1947, for example, when Brasília was more aligned with Washington, Oswaldo de Aranha, who was leading the UN General Assembly on November 30, gave the final vote for the Resolution 122. It was the starting point for the partition of Palestine, culminating on Israel’s independence in 1948. The same pattern can be observed in recent years. During Lula’s governments, Brazil sought a more prominent role in world affairs, prioritizing relations with countries in the south of the world in detriment of the US. He even tried to intermediate, together with Turkey, a nuclear deal with Iran, which created some friction in Brazil’s relations with Israel and great distress for the Brazilian Jewish community.
Going in the opposite direction, Bolsonaro, a fierce critic of Lula and Dilma Rousseff, considers himself a great fan of Donald Trump. On his first official visit to the White House in March this year, he clearly expressed his desire to create a special relationship between Brazil and the US and accused his predecessors of being hostile to Washington. Bolsonaro’s minister of foreign affairs, Ernesto Araújo, affirms that the Western world is passing through a terrible moral crisis and that Trump is one of the few people able to save it from bankruptcy. In this way, Brazil has a duty to support him. According to Araújo, a conservative Catholic, to be a Christian today is to fight the globalism espoused by the UN and international regimes. This explains much of Brazil’s proximity with Israel, especially with Netanyahu, a Trump ally.
As Wilder Alejandro Sanchez has previously written on Providence’s website, there is a good prospect for the future of the relations of the US and Brazil under Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro. This will be very relevant for Trump’s foreign policy to the Middle East, especially in light of his peace plan, still expected to be released this year. The US will also have a strong partner at the UN bodies voting against biased anti-Israel resolutions.
The impacts of these policies in the future of Brazil’s foreign policy are still unknown. It is important for the country to review its pattern of voting at the UN bodies in favor of biased anti-Israel resolutions while abstaining from condemning other countries’ human rights violations. Nevertheless, it is more necessary than that. Brazil has a great potential to be a mediator between Israel and the Arab world. But, in other to accomplish this, the Christian leaders who are in charge of policymaking and those who influence Bolsonaro need to have a better Christian worldview concerning international politics and Israel. Conspiracy theories and apocalyptic data-setting are not enough to deal with the modern-day complexities of the Middle East. The New Christian Zionism, as proposed by Gerald R. McDermott, would be a much better approach. McDermott’s book Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land (already available in Portuguese) should be a must-read introductory bibliography for Brazilian evangelicals, especially for those who are in places of power.
Igor Sabino is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil and holds a BA and an MA in international relations, both from the State University of Paraíba. Igor is a Philos Leadership Institute alumnus and researches about religions international relations and forced migration in the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter: @igorhsabino.
Photo Credit: President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint statement to the press. Photo by Alan Santos for Palácio do Planalto, via Flickr.