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What does Bolsonaro's loss mean to Israel?

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian president and candidate for reelection in Sao Paulo, Brazil, August 23, 2022 [Paulo Lopes/Anadolu Agency]
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian president and candidate for reelection in Sao Paulo, Brazil, August 23, 2022 [Paulo Lopes/Anadolu Agency]

In 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro landed at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport reciting the Hebrew phrase "Ani ohev et Israel"— "I love Israel". During his four years in office, Bolsonaro was able to express his love for Israel in many ways. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right when he said in December 2018 that the government of Jair Bolsonaro will bring "a new era" in relations between Israel and "the major power" Brazil. This is exactly what happened. Bolsonaro´s presidency exhibited a different approach towards relations with Israel, steering away from the policies of previous leftist governments. From promises to move the Brazilian Embassy to occupied Jerusalem; asking for Israel's help to get out of the coronavirus crisis; and raising the Israeli flag and waving it publicly, the extreme right-wing Bolsonaro turned Brazil into Israel's new best friend.

He thus faced a crisis when he lost the first round of the presidential election recently. The election in the region's most powerful and populous nation will now go to a run-off on 30 October between Bolsonaro and Lula da Silva, who received 48.4 per cent of the votes cast, compared with 43.23 per cent for the incumbent. Polls and analysts are almost certain that Lula will win the run-off. If this happens, and Lula is returned as Brazil's latest president, what will Israel do without its best friend? What does Bolsonaro's loss mean to the occupation state?

From the very beginning of his presidency, Bolsonaro was viewed by Israel as a new ally. "I congratulated him on his victory," tweeted Netanyahu enthusiastically. A few weeks later, the Israeli leader flew to Brazil to attend Bolsonaro's inauguration. Promises to move Brazil's Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem were intended to let Bolsonaro get close to the US and Israel. He visited the occupation state in March 2019 and was expected to announce the embassy move while there. Instead, he announced that Brazil would open a commercial office in Jerusalem.

He has since raised many slogans without realising the impossibility of fulfilling them due to Brazil's historical relationship with the Palestinian people and their legitimate cause. Bolsonaro faced opposition to his pro-Israel plans from many political figures in Brazil, even his political soulmates on the far right. Furthermore, he could not afford to ignore key Arab trading partners. The $24.3 billion per year in exports to Arab countries demonstrates that what Brazil gains from Arab countries by far exceeds the benefits it could ever get from Israel.

According to Israeli affairs specialist Dr Adnan Abu Amer, Brazil has political and geographical dimensions that made it attractive to the Israelis. As a result, the occupation state has made concerted efforts to strengthen its relations throughout Bolsonaro's time in office.

"There is no doubt that Bolsonaro and Netanyahu worked together to unify their policies in the political, military and economic fields, which resulted in unprecedented benefits for Israel," explained Abu Amer. "During the Bolsonaro era, Brazil was turned into an open public supporter of the occupation in a remarkable transgression of the traditional Brazilian policy of supporting the Palestinian cause." Israel cannot hide its fear about the return of the left in Latin America, he added. "This is a major setback for Israel's government in terms of its foreign policy across the continent, particularly Brazil."

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Amid the collapse of Brazil's health sector due to Covid-19 last year, the previous Governor of Sao Paulo, Joao Doria, held an auction to acquire weapons from Israel at a cost of R$2 million. The governor turned a blind eye to the health crisis and did not buy oxygen tubes to save thousands of lives. Instead, he bought Israeli weapons.

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. Globally, Brazil is one of the biggest buyers of Israeli war technologies, with arms acquisitions made through private companies in closed agreements.

"When I was Minister of Defence, I always advised our people in the armed forces that they should be careful," said former Brazilian Minister of Foreign Relations Celso Amorim in an earlier interview for MEMO. "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." 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.

Bolsonaro's relationship with Israel is not a spur of the moment thing; it runs very deep. While the Brazilian senate was preoccupied with the impeachment vote against leftist President Dilma Rousseff on 12 May, 2016, the then federal deputy Bolsonaro voiced his pleasure at her predicament while on a trip to Israel. "From the Sea of Galilee Israel, Bolsonaro congratulates all Brazilians who fought for this moment," he said. He clearly felt at home in the occupation state.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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