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Brazil’s armed forces should reduce their dependence on Israel, says ex-minister

July 20, 2020 at 10:03 am

Israel’s President Shimon Peres (C), Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (L) and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim are photographed during meeting at Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, November 11, 2009. [EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images]

To read the first part of this interview please click here.

With the rise of the extreme right-wing under Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, former ambassador and minister Celso Amorim is speaking out about Brazilian-Israeli relations in light of the current developments in his country’s foreign policy. Amorim was a permanent representative of Brazil to the UN and the World Trade Organization in Geneva from 1999 to 2001. He was also Defence Minister (2011-2014) and Foreign Minister (2003–2010).

Brazil and Israel through history

Historically, Brazil has had a good relationship with Israel, voting for the creation of the state in UN Resolution 181, the 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine. Brazil was among the first countries to recognise the nascent state and, according to Amorim, his country maintained a balanced relationship with it.

“We have an important Jewish community in Brazil,” he points out. “We have a much bigger Arab community, of course, but we also have a Jewish community. So we had a good relationship with Israel as we had with Arab countries.”

Brazil’s historic position was to be equidistant between all of these states while, at the same time, holding a position of respect for human rights, international law and UN resolutions. “In my travels to the Middle East,” he tells me, “I did not skip around Israel. Soon after the Summit of South American-Arab States (ASPA) in 2005, I visited Jerusalem for conversations with the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, then deputy prime minister, as well as with my official counterpart, Sylvan Shalom. Keeping this balance was important so that Brazil would not disqualify itself as an interlocutor for both sides, while not renouncing any of its principled positions.”

Israel and Mercosur (Common Market of the South)

In the initial stages of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s presidency in 2003, he travelled to many Arab countries and was the first Brazilian head of state to visit the Middle East since 1870. It was Lula who established the ASPA to allow developing countries to have a stronger voice in international forums. His openness to Arab countries and the establishment of ASPA did not please Israel, and it couldn’t disguise its annoyance.

This led Efraim Innbar, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat Institute, to say that President Lula should choose his travel itineraries better: “The Brazilian president should come to Israel and get to know what the First World is, and not be strolling in dictatorial countries. If he wants to be friends with the Arabs, that’s his problem. But I hope that Lula will have more maturity in the future.”

That is perhaps why Israel was quick to sign the Mercosur trade agreement in 2007. Mercosur is a common market between Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay which together made up 76 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of Latin America. Israel was the first country outside South America to sign a free trade agreement with the bloc, which gave tangible advantages to Israeli companies.

Amorim thinks that Israel’s deal with Mercosur, as the first country outside South America, was a coincidence. “The Israelis were very quick and very interested, and we were opining negotiations with several countries. Israel was interested so we didn’t want to say no to trade; trade is different.” For Israel, of course, nothing much happens by coincidence. Israel is aware of South America’s importance to its own national interests. The agreement with Mercosur included trade valued at around $1.1 billion at that time. All Israeli industrial and agricultural products sold to Mercosur countries were exempt from customs duties.

READ: Bolsonaro has turned Brazil into Israel’s new best friend 

“Israel is the Promised Land and Brazil is the land of promise”

Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 launched a completely new chapter in Brazil’s foreign policy and its relationship with Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel and Brazil have since strengthened bilateral ties under the right-wing President.

Benjamin Netanyahu made the first state visit to Brazil by an Israeli Prime Minister in December 2018, days before Bolsonaro’s inauguration. “Israel is the Promised Land and Brazil is the land of promise,” he told the president-elect.

The two leaders announced a “brotherhood” between their countries that would boost defence ties, the economy, employment, security, water and industry. Bolsonaro made the return visit to Israel in March-April 2019.

“If we talk about Bolsonaro, there are two reference points for him ,” explains Amorim. “There is US President Donald Trump and the extreme right, and there are the Evangelical churches here in Brazil, an important source of support for Israel.”

In times of crisis, Israel lends a helping hand to Brazil

From dams collapsing to wildfires and other crises, Israel has been quick to offer support to one of its closest allies. In August last year, for example, the world’s eyes were fixed on Brazil and the many fires in the Amazon rainforest. The fires consumed large swathes of the forest and put Brazil under immense pressure.

Bolsonaro refused help from a number of states, including France and the G7. He accused his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron of treating Brazil like “a colony”. However, he accepted help from Israel.

Netanyahu’s office confirmed that Israel would send a shipment of flame-retarding chemicals to Brazil. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, tweeted that Israel was sending a specially adapted aircraft to help in the firefighting operation.

“An Israeli delegation of firefighters and rescue workers, specialising in forest and rural fires, will leave for Brazil,” confirmed Nizar Amer, the interim spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, last September. The team’s objectives were, he said, “to provide immediate assistance… knowledge and professional expertise” to the Brazilian authorities. The Israeli delegation was headed by Commander Yair Elkayam.

Amorim points out that Israel doesn’t have that sort of experience of dealing with large natural disasters. “This was, of course, a political move in order to allow an Israeli presence in Brazil and create the impression that Israel can help. The objective of the Bolsonaro government was to strengthen his standing in Washington, and I believe that he thought that in this case Israel had a useful part to play. Also, as I mentioned before, it links him to the US Evangelical movement, which plays an important role in US support for Israel.”

This was not the first time that Israel had sent help to Brazil. In early 2019, the Israeli government sent more than 130 soldiers to help in the aftermath of a breach in a dam in Brumadinho in Minas Gerais. The Israel Defence Forces search and rescue team was deployed to assist in the search for hundreds of people missing after the catastrophic collapse of the dam.

The Brazilian commander of the rescue efforts, Lieutenant-Colonel Eduardo Ângelo, told journalists that the equipment brought from Israel to Brumadinho was not effective in that kind of disaster, causing some embarrassment.

“Well, I can’t speculate about Israel’s goal,” Amorim points out, “but I think it wanted to make its presence felt here in Brazil at the beginning of the Bolsonaro presidency. They started to show their special friendship, maybe with the military because the army was involved in reinforcing the dam. Maybe these military people entered Brazil with intelligence objectives. I can’t say exactly what their goals were because I don’t know. I can only say that their help was useless.”

READ: Will Arab countries support the transfer of the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem? 

Israel tries to control Brazilian military technology

When the country rejected the appointment of Dani Dayan as Israeli Ambassador in 2015, former Defence Minister Celso Amorim said that, “It is time for the Brazilian armed forces to reduce their dependence on Israel.”

When Israel killed more than 50 Palestinians at the Great March of Return protest in the Gaza Strip on 14 May 2018, the day that the US opened its new embassy in Jerusalem, Amorim was quick with his criticism. “It is necessary to say no to the wall, no to killing Palestinians, no to agreements with Israel in sensitive sectors, especially at a time like this that is marked by the brutality of the Israeli government.”

Under Bolsonaro, Brazil opened talks with Israel to acquire and exchange scientific and defence technologies. Six agreements have been signed for defence technology, such as missiles, radar and high-tech surveillance cameras, that could help modernise Brazil’s military and law enforcement agencies.

As far as Amorim is concerned, there is an excessive dependence of the Brazilian government on Israeli military technology, mainly in “avionics” used in aircraft, satellites and drones, for example. “When I was Minister of Defence, I always advised our people in the armed forces that they should be careful. I’m not against Israel per se, but the problem is that we may face restrictions on account of our positions in relation to Palestine.”

It seems that Bolsonaro’s overtures towards Israel haven’t fulfilled Israeli ambitions sufficiently, especially in the light of his domestic and external political failures. The “new era”, as Benjamin Netanyahu described the government of Jair Bolsonaro, is unlikely to come to fruition.

“Everyone is disappointed with Bolsonaro now because of his actions within Brazil, including his lack of real leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic,” concluded Celso Amorim, “so I’m not sure if even Netanyahu will say the same thing now.”