The Brazil Crisis: The Minister Who Refused to Talk to Ya'alon, the Palestinian Campaign and Israel's Naiveté

Palestinian diplomats pressure Brazil not to accept former settler leader Dani Dayan's ambassadorship; meanwhile, Brazil's defense minister stopped taking Ya'alon's calls.

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Barak Ravid
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Dani Dayan at El Matan outpost near the Maaleh Shomron settlement, December 2014.
Dani Dayan at El Matan outpost near the Maaleh Shomron settlement, December 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

In the middle of November Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon tried to get former Brazilian Defense Minister Jaques Wagner on the phone, in an effort to find out why, after more than three months, Brazil had still not agreed to the appointment of Dani Dayan as Israel’s ambassador.

In the absence of a full-time foreign minister, Ya’alon has become the chief liaison with the Brazilian government on the matter. Ya’alon had first spoken with Wagner about Dayan in September, after hearing reports that the Brazilian government objected to Dayan because he was a settler and a former chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, also known as the Yesha Council.

Wagner, 63, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland who in his youth was active in the Habonim Dror youth movement, is considered one of the most pro-Israel officials in the Brazilian government. Since that first conversation with Ya’alon, Wagner has been promoted to presidential bureau chief, a cabinet-level position that has made him one of Brazil’s most powerful men.

Ya’alon was having trouble reaching Wagner this time, however. His office left messages and outgoing ambassador Reda Mansour and his people tried to help arrange the conversation, but there was no response from the other side. Wagner was making himself unavailable. After two weeks of trying, one of Wagner’s top aides got back to the Israeli Embassy. “Stop calling,” he said. “We know what Ya’alon wants to talk about. If we need to, we’ll get back to him.”

At that point, around two weeks ago, Jerusalem understood it had a problem. Ya’alon updated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister, about this worrisome development. But the latter took little action. Netanyahu wanted to wait until the artificial deadline of January 1, which was when the Foreign Ministry had decided it paid to start worrying. The Brazilians, however, didn’t wait. When they realized the Israeli government wasn’t getting the subtle hint, they issued a stronger one by leaking to The Times of Israel that they would not accept Danny Dayan as ambassador.

Jerusalem knew that Dayan’s appointment was a challenge. The policy of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her government has been supportive of the Palestinians and sharply critical of the settlement enterprise. Despite the objective difficulties, getting the appointment accepted was not an impossible mission. Israeli government conduct, however, was too hesitant and sometimes too nave, given that there was an aggressive campaign in Brazil against the appointment.

Over the past four months, the Palestinian envoy in Brasilia, Ibrahim al-Zaben, has been holding intensive talks with senior Itamaraty (Brazilian foreign ministry) officials to persuade the government to reject Dayan’s appointment. Al-Zaben is the senior Arab diplomat in Brazil and Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem say that since Netanyahu announced Dayan’s appointment in August, al-Zaben has been at the Itamaraty nearly every week, usually accompanied by two or three other Arab ambassadors. They reiterate their objection to Dayan’s appointment and seek assurance that the Brazilians do not plan to approve it.

Al-Zaben’s diplomatic efforts have been augmented by public diplomacy and advertising campaigns by pro-Palestinian groups. They’ve gotten signatures on petitions, written letters, and exerted pressure on Brazilian ministers and lawmakers to oppose Dayan.

Israel, on the other hand, has maintained a low profile over these four months. Aside from the phone calls by Ya’alon, the only minister to intervene, the government has exerted almost no pressure on the Brazilian government. Pressure actually came from opposition leaders, including Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, who were in touch with the Brazilian ambassador to Israel about the issue.

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem has had only limited contact with the Itamaraty on this matter. Lacking a full-time minister, discussions were held by lower-level officials and Israeli diplomats who visited Brasilia and spoke with their counterparts there, but these did not make any progress – if anything, they contributed to the confusion and uncertainty about the Brazilians’ intentions. Senior Jerusalem officials said that at one point the Brazilians hinted that all would be well, while other times they asked that Israel not pressure them because it would only interfere. As a result, Israel adopted a wait-and-see approach.

Brazil’s domestic political crisis also contributed to Israel’s passivity. An impeachment process launched against Rousseff has almost completely paralyzed the Brazilian government. At some point Jerusalem officials began to hope that Rousseff would be removed and new elections called, which would make approving Dayan easier. Even now, after the Brazilians have leaked that they aren’t interested in Dayan, senior officials in both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office still hope that if they only wait another two or three months, Rousseff will be out.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials note that one of the reasons Dayan’s appointment turned into a problem is Netanyahu’s refusal to appoint a foreign minister. If there had been one, it’s possible the crisis could have been headed off at the start, as he or she could have spoken directly to his or her Brazilian counterpart and worked things out, rather than having to rely on unconventional channels like Ya’alon, who, despite his good intentions, lacks the right professional demeanor for this assignment.

Diplomacy is a profession. Behind the title of foreign minister there are 100 diplomatic missions that must be guided, an extensive network of connections to be managed, and diplomatic crises that must be resolved. Given the many portfolios Netanyahu is juggling, he might be able to deal with the highest-priority foreign policy issues, but cannot pay much attention to the rest. Israel’s interests in Brazil are liable to pay a price for this.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in response, “The issue is being dealt with.”

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