Gabriel Huland, PhD Media Studies
In a recent interview with the conservative newspaper Israel Hayom, the future Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro announced his intention to move the Brazilian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Brazil will soon join the United States and Guatemala in the short list of countries that have moved their embassies to Jerusalem in defiance of a long-standing international consensus.
Bolsonaro received 55% of the votes in one of Brazil’s most disputed elections since its transition to democracy in 1985. The former army captain has long been a sympathiser of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for 20 years. He promised to reduce corruption and criminality by carrying out a conservative agenda including privatisations, cuts in social programs and loosening labour regulations. He also plans to crush criminal behaviour by allowing the police to go a step further in the deployment of violent methods in Brazil’s more impoverished areas.
“Moving embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem fits the general diplomatic atmosphere where the international community does not make enough effort to uphold international law.”
Fayrouz Sharqawi, the global mobilisation coordinator of Grassroots Jerusalem, expressed her concerns with the news, stating that: “moving embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem fits the general diplomatic atmosphere where the international community does not make enough effort to uphold international law. It normalises the continuous violation of Palestinian rights by Israel and its control over both parts of occupied Jerusalem.”
The UN Security Council Resolution 478 condemns the idea of Jerusalem being the “indivisible capital of Israel.” Whether Bolsonaro will be able to proceed with his plans remains unclear, as reactions from world leaders have been conflicting. Whilst Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the measure as “the right one,” Egypt’s authorities cancelled a Brazilian foreign minister’s visit to the country following the announcement.
Since 1947, when Brazil voted in favour of UN Resolution 181 that partitioned Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, the country has maintained economic, political and diplomatic relations with both Israel and Palestine. In 1981, it supported the UN Resolution 3379 considering Zionism a form of racial discrimination. More recently, during the centre-left Lula government, it opened a representative office in Ramallah and recognised Palestine as a sovereign state. In 2017, bilateral trade between Brazil and Palestine totalled $27 million US dollars.
The proactive attitude towards the recognition of a Palestinian state, however, has not prevented Brazil from maintaining a thriving relationship with Israel. Bilateral trade between both countries reached more than $460 million last year. Brazil is Israel’s fifth largest weapons importer, as well as acquiring a large proportion of technology and other security products. Israel, by contrast, imports agricultural products from the Mercosur: the South American free-trade area including Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela; with whom it signed a trade agreement in 2007.
Bolsonaro has recently announced a visit to Israel early next year with the objective of purchasing drones and signing cooperation agreements for the exchange of water desalination techniques. The drones, which, according to Bolsonaro, would be used to fight Brazilian drug cartels, could also play a role in curbing social movements and other oppositionist activities.
Bolsonaro is a long-time supporter of Israel. In a video posted on his Facebook profile in 2016, he describes the Jewish state as a “guarantor of democracy and freedom.” The Brazil-Israel Zionist Association, an organisation that sees Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, openly supported the far-right candidate. Bruno Huberman, a Brazilian Research Student at SOAS said, “The embassy move represents a legitimising gesture of the Israeli settler-colonial project from a major global south state.”
Bolsonaro’s political and financial ties with the neo-Pentecostals, a branch of the Evangelical Church with more than 40 million followers in Brazil, are well-aligned in the recent announcement. This group, which owns numerous temples and media organisations in Brazil and abroad, follows the Christian Zionist doctrine. They see the return of the Jews to the ‘Holy Land’ and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 as the consummation of a biblical prophecy.
Nonetheless, the Jewish community in Brazil is divided regarding the future Brazilian president. During the recent elections, the group “Jews Against Bolsonaro” opposed his racist, sexist, and homophobic comments in an open letter that received thousands of signatures in a few days.
Religious preferences aside, the controversial announcement signals that on the international level Bolsonaro will prioritise the relationship with what might be called the “conservative axis” formed by countries such as the US, Israel, Hungary, Poland, and others. It is possible that by moving the embassy to Jerusalem Brazil could become isolated in the international community. Furthermore, if, as Sharqawi suggests, this move “normalises the continuous violation of Palestinian rights by Israel” it could pose more obstacles in finding a solution to the Palestinian question.
Photo Credits: Creative Commons