Jair Bolsonaro’s unexpected election to the Brazilian presidency in 2018 appeared to herald a major reorientation of the country’s foreign policy. A self-styled nationalist inspired by Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has associated himself with the American president’s former advisor Steve Bannon, the philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, and the political scientist Filipe Martins (currently a counselor to the Brazilian president on international relations)—all of whom see Israel as a model of successful nationalism. To them, the Jewish state is to be emulated for standing up to the “globalism” and “imperialism” of the United Nations and other international institutions which they see as engaged in the destruction of the Judeo-Christian roots of Western civilization. In parallel, pundits and professors have lumped together Bolsonaro, Trump, and Benjamin Netanyahu, along with a disparate group of other leaders, as examples of the supposed rise of right-wing populists.
Such comparisons obscure more than they reveal. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro has, in practical terms, cultivated friendly relations with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, breaking with his country’s longstanding coolness toward the Jewish state. In this he may be motivated less by anti-globalist ideology than by the growing electoral strength of the traditionally Catholic country’s evangelical Christians. Brazil is home to some 40 million evangelicals, approximately 20 percent of the overall population. Bolsonaro owes his election in no small part to their support. To win them over, he has made the promotion of traditional values—such as the defense of the family and the legal restriction of abortion—key parts of his platform. And he has embraced something that heretofore has had little purchase on the Brazilian right: Christian Zionism.
Appealing to what seems to be very real pro-Israel sentiment among his evangelical supporters, Bolsonaro promised in 2018 that relocating his country’s embassy to Jerusalem would be a high priority. Yet two years later the embassy has not been moved, although five bilateral agreements have been signed between Brazil and Israel, establishing cooperation in national defense, cybersecurity, science, technology, and other important areas.
Why hasn’t the newfound friendship between Bolsonaro and Netanyahu brought more results? Are such results yet to come? And, perhaps most importantly, will the reorientation toward Israel outlast Bolsonaro, or will his eventual successors revert to the old attitudes?
Friends of Israel may not think of Brazil very often, but they should. Brazil is both the largest and the most populous country in Latin America, and it plays an important leadership role in the region. Brazil’s decisions could pave the way for its neighbors to follow suit. What happens there could indicate something significant about the influence of the growing evangelical movements throughout South and Central America. To assess the likelihood of Brazilian evangelicals strengthening the Brazil-Israel relationship, historical context is needed, as is an investigation of the obstacles that stand in the way of closer ties between the two countries, and an analysis of the political situation Bolsonaro now faces.
For Israel, outreach to Latin America is something relatively new. In the 1950s, Jerusalem, realizing that its Arab neighbors had no intention of accepting the existence of a Jewish state in their midst, and that many Muslim countries further afield felt similarly, began trying to strengthen its ties with the developing world, often through the provision of humanitarian aid and technological assistance. But these efforts were mostly focused on nearby Africa rather than far-away Latin America, and in any case they largely came to a halt following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when, under pressure from the Soviet Union and the Arab League, several African countries severed relations. Israel thereafter tried directing its humanitarian diplomacy elsewhere, but it continued to neglect the Western Hemisphere—despite the fact that nearly every country in the region had voted for Israel’s independence in 1948. That neglect came to an end in 2009, when Benjamin Netanyahu and his then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman embarked on their current mission of building and strengthening ties with countries from Japan to Azerbaijan to Nigeria.
While this strategy has brought major dividends in Africa, East Asia, Eastern Europe, and most recently with the Gulf states, it has progressed at a much slower pace in Latin America. Netanyahu did not visit the region until 2017—the first Israeli prime minister to do so—traveling to Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, and Mexico. The next year brought a major breakthrough when both Guatemala and Paraguay decided to move their embassies to Jerusalem. Thus, the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 seemed to Netanyahu an ideal opportunity to build on his recent overtures.
But unlike the United States, Brazil does not have a history of philo-Semitism that roots the demands of Bolsonaro’s Christian Zionists in a widely shared cultural consensus. Moreover, the Middle East, and Israel in particular, have generally not been priorities for Brazilian diplomacy. And there is the fact that Brazil is one of the world’s largest exporters of halal meat and that the Arab countries, when taken together, constitute its third largest trading partner, behind only China and the U.S. According to Brazil’s Ministry of Economy, exports to the Arab world in 2019 exceeded $10 billion, in contrast to just $371 million to Israel.
That was one of the factors that prevented Bolsonaro, on his March 2019 trip to Israel, from announcing the promised move of the embassy to Jerusalem. According to him, it should happen soon. A first step came in the form of the opening of a commercial office there, inaugurated in December of last year. Little by little, the obstacles for Brazil to join the U.S. in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal and indivisible capital are becoming less insurmountable. But the gains still seem tentative. And there is also the instructive case of Paraguay, which, three months after moving its embassy, moved it back to Tel Aviv following the election of a new president. Will Bolsonaro’s successor simply undo whatever he has accomplished?
To answer these questions, and to understand Bolsonaro’s moves, some larger historical context is in order. Brazilian involvement in the Middle East goes back to the 1870s, when the country’s Emperor Dom Pedro II visited Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. His motivations were in part religious—he was a fervent Catholic eager to see the biblical lands—and in part scholarly, as he was also an orientalist with a firm command of Arabic and biblical Hebrew.
When Egypt gained independence in 1924, and Lebanon in 1946, Brazil—by this time a republic rather than an empire—was among the first countries to establish relations. In 1947, when the UN held its historic vote to partition Palestine, the Brazilian ambassador Oswaldo Aranha by happenstance presided over the session, joining the “ayes.”
Nonetheless, Brazil had no special sympathy for the Zionist cause, as evidenced by its reluctance to establish diplomatic relations with the new state. Brazil voted for Israel’s creation primarily because the U.S. had done so, and its government was eager to stay in Washington’s good graces. And like many lesser powers, it wanted to show that it was a member in good standing of the international community. It thus backed the creation of UNRWA, the UN organization that supports Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and in 1956 contributed troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in the Suez. Above all, it sought to project an air of neutrality and of support for the recommendations of the UN, whether those were to create a Jewish state in the former British Mandate or, in 1967, to call on Israel to withdraw from territory it had seized from Egypt and Jordan. While Brazil’s approach to the Middle East has gone through many shifts in the postwar era, the common thread running from 1945 to 2018 has been this almost blind adherence to United Nations resolutions.
This policy of UN- and U.S.-supported neutrality was already showing cracks when the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent Arab boycott shattered it. At the time, Brazil was ruled by one of a series of military governments, which had other reasons to distance itself from Washington and to seek greater autonomy by intensifying trade agreements with countries not aligned with either the West or with Moscow—such as the Arab nations.
These commercial ties inevitably had political consequences vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially when it came to votes at the UN General Assembly. In addition to calling for Palestinian statehood, Brazil recognized Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians. Worse still, it voted in favor of the fateful infamous 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism.
As the cold war came to an end, and democracy returned to Brazil, its Middle East policy zigzagged. Lula da Silva, who was president from 2003 to 2010, sought to establish the country’s place on the world stage by distancing it from the U.S. Consequently Lula maintained a good relationship with Israel, but prioritized the Arab and Muslim countries, including Syria, Libya, and Iran. His approach brought impressive economic dividends: exports to Arab League states increased nearly sixfold during his presidency.
Brazilian faith in the United Nations is not as irrational as it might at first seem. To policymakers in Brasília, international organizations are a key means of exercising political influence, especially within Latin America. Brazil is a developing country with limited economic and hard military power, and thus it desires good relations with the largest number of countries possible. In forums such as the UN General Assembly, Brazil can demonstrate its soft power and position itself as a role model in the promotion of human rights and the protection of the environment.
Jair Bolsonaro’s election represents a rejection of this approach. By adopting Trump-style anti-globalist rhetoric, he incorporated into his foreign-policy platform ideas that have long played a role in the American national conversation. But although Bolsonaro’s appeals to nationalism struck a chord with voters, there is a mismatch between his rhetoric and geopolitical realities. Washington can afford to adopt a critical stance towards international institutions, and even withdraw from UN organizations such as the WHO or UNESCO, while maintaining its relevance on the world stage. If Brazil does so, however, it sacrifices its influence, alienates its allies, and even has trouble making trade agreements.
Despite these downsides, Bolsonaro has plowed ahead with this “anti-globalist” foreign policy. In a sense, moving the embassy to Jerusalem is a natural step—another way for Bolsonaro to thumb his nose at the international consensus, albeit in this case with good justification. The same is true for the Bolsonaro government’s support for Israel in international forums.
At the same time, the wealthiest Arab states no longer wish to punish countries for pursuing ties with Israel, and in this respect Bolsonaro has far more leeway than his predecessors. His recent trip to the Persian Gulf, and frequent meetings between high-ranking officials in his government and Arab diplomats and businessmen, suggest that he values cordial relations with the rest of the Middle East and that Brazil has not suffered economically from its pro-Israel turn. Likewise, it seems reasonable to speculate that moving the embassy wouldn’t lead to substantial backlash.
Yet such an abrupt and concrete shift in favor of Israel would undoubtedly be met with intense criticism from Bolsonaro’s domestic opponents. It would also increase the risks that the next government would simply reverse course. Several Brazilian diplomats, unhappy with the country’s current direction, have already begun to outline what they believe the post-Bolsonaro Brazilian foreign policy should be—and have made clear that this would involve returning to the former “neutrality” regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But the president remains popular, and he might intend to use the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem as a way to strengthen evangelical support ahead of his bid for reelection in 2022.
The road from Brasília to Jerusalem, however, is long and has many stops. Not only in the Gulf, but also in Washington. As already mentioned, historically the Brazilian stance concerning the Israel-Palestinian conflict has always been conditioned on relations with the U.S. This has never been truer than now. Bolsonaro has deliberately connected his support for Israel to the strengthening of Brazilian relations with the United States. This relationship, however, remains highly personal—focused on Trump and Netanyahu rather than on their respective nations.
Thus, during the summer and fall, the biggest obstacle in the strengthening of relations between Brazil and Israel has been uncertainty regarding the American elections. Currently, Bolsonaro is practically the only international leader who has not yet recognized Biden’s victory, expressing doubt about the legitimacy of the voting and apparently holding out hope that Trump still has a chance of remaining in power.
This situation has left Brazil isolated in the Western world and has potentially worsened ties with the incoming American administration. President-elect Biden has already harshly criticized Brazil’s environmental policies during his campaign and has suggested that he will hold the South American country accountable for damage to its rainforests. Under these circumstances, moving the embassy to Jerusalem would seem too risky a step without Washington’s support. However, Bolsonaro has made clear several times that when it comes to foreign policy, his main concern is not the national interest as commonly understood but the preferences of his supporters. Thus he still might move the embassy to Jerusalem in the hope of winning a second term.
All told, the situation reinforces the prejudices many Brazilians have about Israel and the Jews: that they are aligned with the far right and engaged in a European colonial project in the Middle East. These opinions, and the anti-Semitic baggage that come with them, are especially common in certain precincts of the country’s left—which are precisely those likely to come to power at the end of Bolsonaro’s term in office. To create a lasting and solid friendship between Israel and Brazil, it will be necessary for Brazilian friends of the Jewish state to demonstrate that warm relations between the countries aren’t merely a boon to politicized evangelicals, but substantially benefit the national interest.
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