Ending year-long standoff, Brazil accepts new Israeli envoy

Having rejected Dani Dayan in 2015, Brasilia welcomes Yossi Sheli, a former businessman whose appointment was also controversial

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Incoming Israeli Ambassador to Brazil Yossi Sheli (Courtesy of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Incoming Israeli Ambassador to Brazil Yossi Sheli (Courtesy of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Brazil on Tuesday announced that it has accepted Israel’s candidate for the ambassador post in Brasilia, ending a year-and-a-half-long controversy that severely strained relations between the two countries.

The agreement, known in diplomatic language as an agrement, granted by Brazil to Yossi Sheli “marks a new era in Israel’s relations with Brazil, the largest country in Latin America,” the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said in a statement. “There is no doubt that this appointment will advance the friendship between the two nations and the ties in various fields, including economy and trade.”

Brazil is the seventh-largest economy in the world and home to an important Jewish community that supports Israel, the statement said.

Fernando Lottenberg, the president of the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, welcomed the “normalization of diplomatic relations” between the two countries.

“We will continue to work to strengthen ties and the friendship between the two countries, which have strong historical, affective and commercial ties, as well as common values ​​and shared interests,” he told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Former Yesha Council leader Dani Dayan (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
Former Yesha Council leader Dani Dayan (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

Brasilia’s acceptance of Sheli, who has no diplomatic experience, ends a controversy that began in May 2015, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed former settler leader Dani Dayan for the job. Brazil refused to grant Dayan an agrement, ostensibly due to his past chairmanship of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization for leaders of West Bank settlements.

Dayan has since been appointed Israel’s consul-general in New York.

But Sheli — considered a confidant of Netanyahu — was not uncontroversial himself. A former businessman, he was barred from public office for three years after admitting he had not declared his political affiliation despite being a Likud party member when he acted as chairman of the Israel Postal Company’s board of directors and director general of the Beersheba municipality.

In 2008, he came under the scrutiny of Jerusalem prosecutors, who issued an indictment alleging that he had presented false affidavits to the Public Services Authority. He was found guilty of perjury and fraud.

Four years later, he signed a plea bargain in which he admitted to the charge of breach of statutory duty without permission. According to the deal, he was forbidden from serving the state until June 2015.

When news of Sheli’s possible appointment emerged, a reporter for Valor Econômico, Brazil’s largest financial newspaper, wrote that Netanyahu “seems committed to open controversies in choosing his ambassadors to Brazil.” First, he tapped a former settler leader the Brazilian Foreign Ministry refused to accept, the reporter, Daniel Rittner, recalled. Now, “Bibi strikes again,” Rittner continued, citing Sheli’s problematic history.

Members of Brazil’s Jewish community were also unhappy about Sheli’s appointment, saying in private conversations that they wished Jerusalem would appoint an uncontroversial career diplomat to avoid further friction after the Dayan saga.

But Netanyahu stuck to Sheli. “He is a polyglot and speaks several languages and is clearly a very talented individual,” Netanyahu told The Times of Israel during a briefing for reporters in August 2016, before he had finalized his decision to appoint Sheli.

Bilateral ties improved drastically starting in the fall of 2016, after Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff was removed and replaced by Michel Temer, who is considered a better friend of Israel.

Brazilian acting President Michel Temer is seen during the first ministers meeting at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on May 13, 2016. (EVARISTO SA / AFP)
Brazilian acting President Michel Temer is seen during the first ministers meeting at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on May 13, 2016. (EVARISTO SA / AFP)

Brazil’s Foreign Minister José Serra visited Israel to attend the funeral of former president Shimon Peres in September 2016. During his trip, he met with Netanyahu and vowed to improve bilateral ties.

“The idea is to strengthen economic relations, with emphasis to Israeli high-tech, security and defense products,” the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said at the time. Netanyahu and Serra “also agreed to intensify political contacts,” it continued.

Last week, Jerusalem accepted Brazil’s appointment of Paulo César Meira de Vasconcellos as new ambassador to Israel. The Brazilian Senate still has to confirm his appointment.

JTA contributed to this report.

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