Against Foreign Min. Recommendation, Rivlin Apologizes to Brazil for Criticism of Ambassador Recall

Under pressure from Israel Aircraft Industries, Israel’s new president says sorry for 'diplomatic dwarf' comment; MK Katz, chairman of IAI worker's union and Rivlin's campaign manager, may have influenced decision.

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Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff at the National Agriculture Confederation headquarters in Brasilia August 6, 2014.Credit: Reuters

President Reuven Rivlin apologized on Monday night to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff for the Foreign Ministry’s criticism of her decision to recall Brazil’s ambassador from Tel Aviv to protest the fighting in Gaza. High-ranking Jerusalem officials said that Rivlin gave his apology, which went against the Foreign Ministry’s stance, because of a great deal of pressure from officials of Israel Aircraft Industries, who are dealing with a large tender in Brazil.

The affair began about three weeks ago, with the start of Operation Protective Edge. Brazil recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv for consultations in Brasilia to protest the Israeli military operation. The Brazilian Foreign Ministry also issued a sharply-worded condemnation of Israel, accusing it of the disproportionate use of force in the Gaza Strip.

Several days later, Rousseff criticized Israel for the military operation in Gaza. “I do not think that what is happening in Gaza is genocide, but it is definitely a massacre,” she said at a conference in Sao Paulo. High-ranking Foreign Ministry officials said that during the operation in Gaza, Brazil, which encouraged other Latin American countries to recall their ambassadors from Tel Aviv, was one of the first to push for the establishment of an international investigative committee of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

In the wake of the recall of Brazil’s ambassador from Tel Aviv and the criticism by Brazil, Israel’s Foreign Ministry leveled sharp criticism at the Brazilian government. In interviews in the foreign media, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, “This is an unfortunate demonstration of why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf.”

In interviews with the Brazilian media, Palmor continued to criticize the Brazilian government, alluding to the Brazilian soccer team’s defeat by Germany in the World Cup semifinal. “This is not soccer. In soccer, 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.”

Palmor’s statements aroused a great deal of ire and public discussion in Brazil. In early October an election will be held there, and opponents of Rousseff used the crisis in Brazil’s diplomatic relations with Israel and Palmor’s statements as an occasion for sharp criticism of Rousseff and her government’s inability to improve Brazil’s international diplomatic status.

Tensions between Israel and Brazil increased shortly afterward, though according to Foreign Ministry officials, it was the Brazilians who tried to calm things down. Israel’s ambassador in Brasilia, Rafi Eldad, was summoned for a meeting with Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo.

Before the meeting, the Foreign Ministry’s Latin American desk told Eldad not to apologize for Palmor’s statements in any way, and only to emphasize Israel’s desire to calm the tension. “We did not want to exacerbate the situation, but we did not want to apologize either,” a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said. “Compared to what the Brazilians did, our criticism was polite.”

High-ranking Foreign Ministry officials said that Figueiredo did not ask for an apology during the meeting, but also emphasized his desire to lower the level of tension. Tensions have since calmed between both sides, and no Brazilian government official demanded an apology from Israel.

As part of the efforts to lower the tension, officials of the Foreign Ministry and the president’s official residence tried to arrange a telephone conversation between President Shimon Peres, who was about to complete his term in office, and the president of Brazil. The conversation was scheduled for July 27, Peres’s last day in office, but was not possible in the end, and the issue was given to the new president, Reuven Rivlin, to handle.

High-ranking Foreign Ministry officials said that while efforts were under way to schedule the conversation, pressure from officials at Israel Aircraft Industries began to issue an official apology to Brazil for Palmor’s statement. IAI officials said that they were dealing with a tender worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the sale of refueling aircraft to the Brazilian army. “The IAI officials, who wanted to close the tender before the election in Brazil, feared that the diplomatic tension would stall the process,” a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said.

When IAI’s position was brought to Rivlin’s attention – it is unclear by whom – he asked to have a conversation with Rousseff. An IAI spokeswoman refused to speak with Haaretz about the topic, and officials of the president’s official residence refused to confirm whether IAI officials had contacted Rivlin.

Naomi Toledano Kandel, the spokeswoman of the president’s official residence, said that calls had arrived from several quarters and that the considerations had been security-related and economic in nature.

Rivlin also knew that while the Foreign Ministry supported the conversation, it opposed the issuing of an apology to the Brazilian president. Kandel said that before the conversation with Rousseff, Rivlin had spoken with Foreign Ministry director general Nissim Ben-Shitrit, notifying him of his intention to apologize for Palmor’s statement during the conversation. “President Rivlin felt it important to have the conversation because of the tension and the time period,” Kandel said. “The president thought that the statement had been an unfortunate one, and that it required an apology.”

According to the statement issued by the president’s official residence on Tuesday morning, Rivlin “emphasized the excellent relations that have existed for many years between the two countries and the two peoples, and wished to apologize for the recent offensive statements directed toward Brazil.”

Still, according to a statement issued by President Rousseff’s office, Rivlin did not apologize in a general sense. Instead, he made reference to Palmor’s statement, saying that it did not match the Israeli people’s feelings toward Brazil. Officials of the president’s official residents added that Rousseff “expressed appreciation for the apology and added that relations between the two countries were excellent.”

Sources in the Foreign Ministry assess that one of the officials who spoke with Rivlin on the matter was MK Haim Katz of the Likud. The latter is the chairman of the Israel Aerospace Industry's workers' union and is considered one of the closest people to Rivlin in the Knesset. Katz served as the head of Rivlin's campaign staff during his bid for presidency. In the past, Katz also aided Rivlin through the Likud primaries and included him on his recommended list distributed among the party activists. The Aerospace Industry refused to respond to Haaretz' request for clarification over Katz's possible involvement, as did the President's Residence. Katz's bureau said "no response." None of three bureaus issued a denial on the matter.

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