We’ll always have Brasilia? How the Dani Dayan saga could best play out

We’ll always have Brasilia? How the Dani Dayan saga could best play out

Israel is currently mulling how to respond to Brazil’s rejection of its designated ambassador. There are many bad options, and one good one

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Dani Dayan, the former head of the Yesha settler's council, January 9, 2013. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Dani Dayan, the former head of the Yesha settler's council, January 9, 2013. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

The way the Israeli government has been handling Dani Dayan’s appointment as ambassador to Brazil can be described as a total train wreck, putting one man and two countries in a very awkward position nobody really knows how to get out of.

The government bungled the nomination from the very start. And once it became evident that Brasilia was disinclined to accept it, Jerusalem ignored the issue for too long, allowing both sides to dig into their positions instead of looking for constructive ways out of the imbroglio.

But while the sorry affair has been blown way out of proportion — after the episode made headlines both in Israel and in Brazil, and could yet escalate further — there is still a way to calm the tension and fix the situation without anybody getting hurt too badly.

Later this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to convene a meeting and decide how to proceed. He has several options; some are bad, others even worse. One idea, which has so far not been publicly discussed, makes sense and could prevent the affair from causing further harm to Israel’s relations with South America’s most important country.

The saga started back on August 5, when Netanyahu announced that Dayan, a staunch advocate for Israel’s settlement movement who had headed the Settlers Council umbrella group, would be his new ambassador to Brasilia. Brazilian officials claim they learned about the controversial appointment — pro-Palestinian activists in both countries immediately lobbied against it — from the media rather than through the proper diplomatic channels. That procedural hiccup was a problem. But it is his championing of the settler movement that forms the basis of Brasilia’s rejection of Dayan.

In early September, Jerusalem requested from the Brazilians an agrément — the generally routine confirmation that they would welcome Israel’s envoy to their capital. Since then, Israel has done precious little to obtain such an agrément, and reports emerged that no less than Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was unwilling to accept Dayan due to his pro-settlement activism.

In the absence of a full-time Israeli foreign minister, it was left to lower-level diplomats and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to push the matter. Ya’alon in late September contacted his counterpart in Brasilia, Jaques Wagner, to try to persuade the government to confirm Dayan’s appointment. Wagner apparently reassured his Israeli colleague, but Ya’alon’s initiative was ultimately unsuccessful.

“We have yet to hear from the Brazilians. The ball is in their court,” a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office said in response to a Times of Israel query on Tuesday, nearly four months after the agrément was first requested. “It is our hope that he will be accepted and that we will be hearing shortly from them.”

An agrément is usually given within two to three weeks. When one is not received after two months, a government is meant to understand that its choice of ambassador was not approved by the host country.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely speaking at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem (Elram Mendel)
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely speaking at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem (Elram Mendel)

Despite the official’s comment, Jerusalem knows that the Brazilians aren’t going to just return from their New Year’s vacation, phone the Foreign Ministry and accept Dayan’s appointment. The problem is that they haven’t yet figured out a strategy for tackling the thorny diplomatic issue.

On Sunday, a meeting was held at the Prime Minister’s Office to discuss the matter. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Foreign Ministry Director Dore Gold and one of Netanyahu’s foreign policy advisers, Jonathan Schachter, participated. Netanyahu and Dayan were absent.

Another powwow on the issue is scheduled for Thursday, and this time, the prime minister (who is also acting foreign minister) and the designated ambassador will be there.

Will Israel declare diplomatic war on Brazil?

Israel has several options now. One is to continue with the current policy: do nothing and just wait for better times. Netanyahu has so far done little to advance Dayan’s appointment, and could decide to do even less. He might be hoping Dayan will become fed up with the farce and withdraw his candidacy himself, which is unlikely. Or Israel could wait for a leadership change in Brazil — which is more likely, though it might take a few months.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is unhappy with the appointment of Dayan as Israeli ambassador. (Photo by AFP PHOTO/EVARISTO SA)
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff (AFP photo/Evaristo SA)

Brazil has been in political turmoil lately, and in late March, the country’s parliament will decide whether to call for the impeachment of President Rousseff. If the country gets a new leadership, all bets are off and Dayan might still make it to the ambassador’s residence in Brasilia.

Another course of action currently discussed in Jerusalem is to exert pressure on the current Brazilian government via powerful figures in the country’s Jewish community. Brazilian Jews worry that Israel retracting Dayan’s appointment could lead to an increase in anti-Semitism. Many could be expected to happily use any influence they have to sway their government in Dayan’s favor.

A more likely scenario sees Israel declare diplomatic war on Brazil. Hotovely, herself a vocal supporter of the settlements, on Sunday indicated Israel would “use all the tools at its disposal” to secure Dayan’s appointment. Jerusalem refuses to nominate anyone else, she declared; Brazil will have to either accept Dayan or live without an Israeli ambassador, sufficing with a lower-level diplomat representing Jerusalem’s interests. “Israel will not accept the rejection of an ambassador for ideological reasons,” she vowed.

Dayan is undeniably a symbol for Israel’s settlement movement, which the world deems illegitimate

The reasoning behind this belligerent approach is evident: Israel cannot allow a friendly country to boycott Israelis because of their residence in or support for Jewish communities in the West Bank.

Dayan has himself warned that his could become a precedent-setting case that would jeopardize future appointments of settlers. “The question we need to pose now,” Dayan told Channel 2 on Saturday, “is whether the next settler deemed suitable to be an ambassador can fill a diplomatic posting — or do we agree that 700,000 Israelis are unable to fill these roles?”

However, such arguments ignore the fact that the Argentinian-born Dayan is not a rank-and-file settler. He was the chairman of the Yesha Council, a committee representing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, until 2013. He then served as the group’s chief foreign envoy, a position he left just a year ago. There are many Israeli diplomats who live beyond the Green Line and are readily accepted in ambassadorial posts in foreign countries. But Dayan is undeniably a symbol of Israel’s settlement movement, which much of the international community deems illegitimate.

Dayan, who lives in the northern West Bank settlement of Maale Shomron, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Yesha Council head Dani Dayan speaks at a settler's protest outside PM Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem against the planned renewal of a settlement construction freeze, November 21, 2010. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yesha Council head Dani Dayan speaks at a settler’s protest outside PM Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem against the planned renewal of a settlement construction freeze, November 21, 2010. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Furthermore, according to the codes of diplomacy, it is a country’s prerogative to reject another country’s choice for ambassador. Israel is aware of this: In 1997, the government withdrew the candidacy of a designated ambassador to Turkey, Ehud Toledano, once it realized that Ankara objected to his appointment, presumably due to his position on the Armenian genocide.

Locking horns with Brasilia over Dayan’s appointment is liable to cause tangible harm to bilateral ties. An extensive diplomatic crisis is in nobody’s interest, but it seems that Israel has more to lose. Brazil is, after all, the seventh-largest economy in the world.

“Latin America is one of the main objectives of the State of Israel in the context of its efforts to develop markets that will contribute to increasing economic growth,” Netanyahu declared on the day he named Dayan for the ambassador job.

In a press release about the appointment at the time, the Prime Minister’s Office explained the importance of good ties with Brazil, stating that a fifth of the country’s 200 million citizens are “pro-Israel Christians.” Jerusalem has therefore “set as a goal the development of commercial links with international markets in South America, especially Brazil,” the prime minister said.

Netanyahu’s bid to send a high-profile candidate to promote ties with this important country makes a lot of sense in that context. The problem is that Dayan’s high-profile stems, in part, from a career history that is anathema to Brasilia. Thus even if Israel were to eventually succeed in getting him into the ambassador’s residence in Brasilia, Dayan’s term there would likely be overshadowed by the controversy over his appointment. How effective could he be in advancing his country’s interests, if he had to fight his way into the country, against the wishes of the host government?

But there is an option that could allow all parties to save face and salvage cordial bilateral ties: offer Dayan a different diplomatic posting of equal prestige. He cannot become ambassador in his native Buenos Aires since he still holds Argentinian citizenship (which one cannot renounce), but he could be sent to another high-profile location where his mother-tongue Spanish and his fluent command of English would be of value.

Jerusalem could, for instance, ask Dayan to become consul-general in Los Angeles. It’s a highly coveted post, sparing him the embarrassment of being downgraded, and his pro-settlement credentials would likely be no obstacle in obtaining the coveted agrément from the US administration. Southern California has a large Spanish-speaking community, outreach to which has long been on Israel’s agenda. If Dayan can’t have Brasilia, LA might be good compensation.

And Brazil, having stood its ground, would feel like the moral winner of this episode, which might create a conducive environment for the next Israeli ambassador, whoever he or she might be, to start building better bilateral ties.

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