ANALYSIS: A new, though problematic, friend in Brazil

“I congratulated him on his victory,” Netanyahu tweeted of his conversation with the new Brazilian leader.

Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, shows a doll of himself during a rally in Curitiba, Brazil March 29, 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, shows a doll of himself during a rally in Curitiba, Brazil March 29, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Brazil’s populist, ultra-conservative President-elect Jair Bolsonaro on Monday evening and congratulated him on his victory Sunday that signified a change in Brazilian politics.
“I congratulated him on his victory,” Netanyahu tweeted of his conversation with the new Brazilian leader. “I told him I’m certain his election will lead to a great friendship between our peoples and a strengthening of Brazil-Israel ties. We are waiting for his visit to Israel.”
It took mere minutes before the Twittersphere lit up, accusing Netanyahu of once again embracing authoritarian leaders.
“I’m certain of this, too,” tweeted far-Left anti-Israel journalist Glenn Greenwald. “Like most fanatical far-Right leaders, Bolsonaro loves Israel and craves closeness to it. With the western liberal world recognizing Israel for what it is and abandoning support, Israelis see an alliance with far-Right nationalists as their key strategy.”
A less well known presence on Twitter, a man named Stephen Chesworth, wrote: “Two fascist leaders together. Should be an interesting meeting of similar minds.” In another tweet he praised Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known popularly as Lula, saying he was “a man of the people.”
Ah, yes, Lula, the “man of the people,” an ex-president who is now in jail over corruption, led his country of enormous natural resources to the brink of disaster. Bolsonaro defeated Lulu’s candidate, Fernando Haddad from the Worker’s Party, often referred to during the campaign as the Left’s last hope for Brazil.
The “enlightened” of the world, including those such as Greenwald and Chesworth, are appalled that Netanyahu would congratulate Bolsonaro, a man with an admittedly ugly record of comments against gays, women and minorities. And they will be even more aghast when the two meet – as they are certain to do so in the near future.
But should Israel really want another leftist leader in Brazil who will continue its long-standing critical policies towards the Jewish state?
HERE’S WHAT LULA, the lionized “man of the people,” did for Israel while in power. In 2009, he opposed sanctions against Iran to get it to halt its nuclear program, and hosted that country’s rabidly antisemitic president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Brazil. The following year, he paid a reciprocal visit to Tehran.
During Lula’s visit to Israel in 2010, the first ever by a Brazilian president, he refused to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl in Jerusalem, contrary to Israeli protocol measures at the time, but draped a keffiyeh around his shoulders and laid a wreath at the tomb of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah.
The same year he recognized a Palestinian state, a move that led a number of other South American countries to do the same, since Brazil often sets the tone for others in Latin America.
Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, also from the Worker’s Party, recalled Brazil’s ambassador to Israel for consultation in protest over Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and she refused to accept Dani Dayan as Israeli ambassador to Brazil in 2015 because he resided beyond the Green Line.
Moreover, Brazil – under the Worker’s Party – almost always voted against Israel in international forums, and was often among the most critical in its rhetoric. It also led a tough line against Israel in the BRICS group of countries, made up of Brazil, India, China, Russia and South Africa.
And then along comes Bolsonaro, an Evangelical Christian who says his first trip abroad will be to Israel, who says he wants to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem,  close the Palestinian embassy in Brazil because “Palestine’ is not a state, and who wants to deepen the cooperation with Israel because of all the Jewish state can teach and give his country.
So what are Netanyahu and Israel supposed to say? “No thank you, we’d prefer Lula and those like him because their leanings are more liberal and ‘enlightened’?”
Would any state act in such a manner?
Is France, for instance, breaking off ties with China because of its poor human rights records? Or is India not dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin because he is not a Jeffersonian democrat?
With the rise of right-wing populist leaders around the world, Israel is increasingly finding itself with problematic friends, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
But it is possible to embrace a leader’s policies towards one’s own country, without agreeing on everything that leader says and does. Netanyahu can welcome the new Brazilian leader’s policies towards Israel, without endorsing the whole Bolsonaro package. If Bolsonaro carries out his election campaign pledges to Israel, then this crucial player’s Mideast policies may shift dramatically in Jerusalem’s favor.
 This is good for Israel. It does not mean that Israel accepts everything the Brazilian leader says and does. However, countries have interests, and a shift in Brazilian policy towards a more balanced or even pro-Israel position is something that is most definitely in Jerusalem’s interests – which is precisely why Netanyahu called to congratulate the new South American president.