The friendly relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, made headlines at the end of 2018. This “budding brotherhood,” as they’ve called it, started when Bolsonaro, then the president-elect, announced plans to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Though he has since revised that promise, relations between the two countries continue to flourish. Netanyahu even attended Bolsonaro’s inauguration Jan. 1, becoming the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Brazil. More than a bromance, the close ties between the two leaders are a testament to their countries’ foreign policy strategies.
Back to Normal
Alignment with Israel, while often framed as a new development, is a return to form for Brazil. In the late 1940s, Brazil supported the creation of an Israeli state and was among the first countries to recognize the Israeli government. Ties between the two grew closer during Brazil’s military dictatorship, from 1964 to 1985, as they cooperated in areas such as security and nuclear energy. The relationship continued through the 1990s; in fact, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso received several awards from Israel, including an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, while in office. It was only when Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took power in Brasilia in 2003 that Brazil-Israel relations became strained. Diverging from Cardoso’s neoliberal economic policies, da Silva espoused more direct government control of the economy and ushered in a populist era of government in Brazil.
Changes in foreign policy accompanied the economic shifts: Brasilia turned against the United States – and, by extension, against Israel. Brazil formally recognized the Palestinian state, according to the 1967 border, in 2010. Even then, its relationship with Israel persisted. In 2010, Brazil also ratified the free trade agreement that the Common Market of the South, a regional trade bloc better known as Mercosur, had struck with Israel three years earlier. And despite its decision to recognize Palestine, Brazil never upgraded its diplomatic mission there to embassy status. The moves didn’t exactly please Israel, but neither did they derail its relations with Brazil.
Bolsonaro wants to reverse course from the populist policies of Brazil’s recent history. To that end, he’s pledged to roll back government interference in the economy and to reach out once more to the developed countries da Silva eschewed in a bid to promote industrialization and growth among fellow developing economies. And Bolsonaro’s market reforms, like those of his predecessors, will come with foreign policy changes. Where da Silva looked to other countries in the Southern Hemisphere – namely states in South America and Africa, as well as China – for support and cooperation, the new Brazilian president is turning back toward wealthier northern states like the U.S., countries in Northern Europe and, of course, Israel.
Areas of Mutual Interest
For Israel, meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s interest is well-timed. Israel, a relatively small country, depends on trade and collaboration with other states to keep its economy humming. Surrounded as it is by rivals, however, it must look beyond the Middle East to find suitable partners. Latin America is a natural choice. The region’s many developing markets and trade potential make it an attractive destination for Israel, which, according to the latest World Bank figures, derives 30 percent of gross domestic product from exports. South America remains a largely untapped market for Israel, and it boasts a wealth of natural resources and numerous opportunities for investment, technology development and military modernization. Over the past couple years, Netanyahu has paid official visits to Colombia, Argentina and Chile, along with several countries in Central America. But Brazil is a standout in the region. Not only does it have a $1.93 trillion economy – the world’s ninth-largest, by the World Bank’s most recent data – but it also has recently pulled itself out of recession. Now that Bolsonaro has taken office, promises of deregulation and more open markets have made Brazil even more enticing.
The focus on economic ties in Latin America is something of a departure for Israel. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Israel built its relationships with regional states, including Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Argentina and Colombia, on military backing and support for various armed groups. Its ties with Brazil and nearby countries today are broader in scope by comparison. Nevertheless, military equipment still has a role to play in the partnerships.
In Brazil’s case, technology transfer and development are the priority. Brazil began talks with Israel in March 2018 to acquire and exchange scientific and defense technologies, an arrangement that would at once satisfy Israel’s desire to export military goods and services, its area of expertise, and Brazil’s need to acquire more advanced technology. The two also have reached nascent agreements over defense technology, such as missiles, radar and high-tech surveillance cameras, that could help modernize Brazil’s military and law enforcement. (Some recent Brazilian governments have shied away from making these kinds of deals, but Bolsonaro, a champion of the military and security forces, will welcome them.) Space exploration and satellites are other points of mutual interest. Brazil can benefit from Israel’s know-how on the subject, while Israel takes advantage of Brazil’s strategic launch sites near the equator.
Along with defense, water scarcity is an issue where Israel’s knowledge and experience will come in handy for Brazil. Israel is a global leader in irrigation technology, including drip watering, desalination and extracting moisture from the air. Innovation in the field has enabled it to overcome arid and desert conditions to sustain agriculture, and that ingenuity could be invaluable for Brazil. The South American country’s semi-arid Northeast region is currently in the throes of a yearslong drought that has hurt local economies and populations that rely on rainfall for their agricultural activities. The Brazilian government historically has taken an ad hoc approach to addressing these problems, for example by trucking in large volumes of water to alleviate droughts. Working with Israel, Brazil could devise a longer-term strategy to mitigate the effects of uneven rainfall and lay the necessary groundwork to keep developing the Northeast. The Brazilian Senate unveiled plans for such an initiative early last year, and the topic will be a priority when Bolsonaro visits Israel, as he is expected to do in the first quarter of this year.
A Pragmatic Partnership
For all that renewed cooperation has to offer Brazil and Israel in the economic and tactical spheres, from a political standpoint, the gains are modest. Aligning with Israel will help Brazil ingratiate itself with the United States, while giving Israel more diplomatic support – an asset for a country surrounded by enemies and frequently subject to scrutiny, if not censure, on the international stage. Other than that, though, neither side has much political capital to offer the other. Its shift toward Israel, in fact, has prompted speculation that Brazil would lose allies in the Arab world. But as Netanyahu works to normalize relations with Arab countries in response to Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, the risks of a diplomatic backlash will diminish for Brazil.
The growing partnership between Israel and Brazil is a pragmatic one, based on complementary needs and priorities. These needs – whether economic, military or environmental – are driving the two countries together, Brazil in its quest to develop its economy and assume greater influence in global affairs, and Israel in its effort to find new overseas markets to boost its economy.