RIO, Brazil — The decision by the Brazilian government last week to recall its ambassador to Israel was met with derision by Brazil’s Jewish community.
Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, known as Itamaraty, issued a diplomatic note before recalling its ambassador to Israel on July 23, highlighting the death of 700 people, of which it said approximately 70% were civilians, including women, children, and elderly, as reason to “condemn the disproportional reaction of Israel.”
Ambassador Henrique Sardinha departed Tel Aviv on Thursday (despite the difficulty in finding a flight given the FAA flight ban at Ben-Gurion Airport), ostensibly recalled for consultations on what Brazil calls Israel’s “disproportionate use of force” in the current conflict in Gaza.
Jewish community leaders in Brazil condemned the decision, while Mohamed Habib, adviser to the Arabic Cultural Institute in São Paulo, denied any irregularities, saying, “Brazil simply recalled its ambassador to discuss the crisis. Israel’s response was to disrespect the country.”
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, in a reference to Brazil’s stinging defeat in the World Cup, told the Brazilian television news program Jornal Nacional on Thursday, “Israel’s response is perfectly proportioned in accordance with international law. This is not football. In football, when a game ends in a draw, you think it is proportional, but when it finishes 7-1 it’s disproportionate. Sorry to say, but not so in real life and under international law.”
The allusion to the World Cup made headlines throughout Brazil on Friday, provoking discussion about the potential political motivations behind Itamaraty’s decision as the presidential election season heats up.
In the immediate aftermath, Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo held a press conference on Thursday in which he clarified the chain of events. He pointed out that on July 17, Itamaraty issued a diplomatic note that condemned both Hamas for rocket fire and Israel for its attack on the Gaza Strip. The second note only made mention of Israeli military action, which prompted a complaint from Israel’s Foreign Ministry. However, he affirmed, the condemnation of Hamas made in the first note remains valid and Brazil’s position was in favor of an immediate ceasefire.
“Brazil and Israel are friendly countries. Disagreements between friends is something we view as normal,” Figueiredo told journalists. “Brazil is one of only 11 countries in the world that has diplomatic relations with every member of the UN. We have a history of international cooperation and action for peace. If there are diplomatic dwarves, Brazil isn’t one of them.”
Brazilian Ambassador Sardinha followed in the footsteps of Ecuador’s ambassador, who was recalled by President Rafael Correa on Wednesday. Also Wednesday, Itamaraty summoned the Israeli ambassador to Brazil, Rafael Eldad, where he was informed of the country’s position on the current conflict.
According to Agencia EFE, a Spanish international news agency, the Palestinian Liberation Organization will issue a letter thanking both Ecuardor and Brazil for its support.
Ahead of the summit of heads of state for the Common Market of the South (Mercosul) on Tuesday in Caracas, several news outlets are reporting that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will ask member countries Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela to also support Brazi’s position on the Israel-Gaza conflict and reject the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s characterization of the country’s diplomatic efforts.
“It would have been interesting if the reaction [to recall the ambassador] had been taken jointly with the other members of the BRICS or Mercosul. Brazil shouldn’t have done this on its own,” said Gunther Rudzit, coordinator of the Instituto Rio Branco, Brazil’s diplomatic school.
Israel’s presence in the region was solidified in 2007, when Israel became the first country outside of South America to sign a free trade agreement with the regional bloc.
Several Israeli companies, including Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Elbit Systems, Global Shield, and RISCO Group, have lucrative deals with the Brazilian government for security products, including many that were implemented during the recent World Cup.
The Frente em Defesa do Povo Palestino–SP (Front in Defense of the Palestinian People–São Paulo), a Brazilian branch of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, has publicly protested these deals as exporting Gaza-like tactics to Brazilian cities.
The Brazilian Ministry of Defense and the Front in Defense of the Palestinian People did not return requests for comment on whether this diplomatic conflict would affect these business deals. A spokesperson for the Brazilian Foreign Ministry referred to Minister Figuereido’s press conference without responding to questions about bilateral trade.
President Rousseff is up for reelection in October and the campaign season officially began last week, adding a political lens to this week’s events. O Globo, Rio’s conservative leading daily, wrote on Friday, “It’s impossible not to see an electoral connotation to this gesture in order to bring more support from the left, which has always been sympathetic to the Palestinians.”
However, Brazil’s diplomatic history with Israel is long and generally amicable, a point that many commentators have pointed out in recent days after the sharp rebuke from Palmor. In particular, the media has reminded the public that Osvaldo Aranha, Brazil’s then ambassador to the United Nations, presided over the General Assembly meeting in 1947 that approved the partition of Palestine and gave birth to the Jewish State. His gavel is on display at the Kibbutz Bror Hayil — currently in Hamas firing range in southern Israel — which also has a Brazilian cultural museum and has received many South American immigrants since the foundation of the state.
However, Rousseff’s government and that of her predecessor, president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, both of the Workers Party, have made several diplomatic moves that discourage Israel.
Da Silva’s efforts to serve as an alternative mediator for Middle Eastern peace were discounted by his close relations with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Da Silva also presided over the Brazilian government’s decision to recognize a Palestinian state with pre-1967 borders, while Rousseff supported Palestinian statehood in her first UN General Assembly address in 2011.