Populist nationalism appears poised for yet another victory, this time in Brazil: many see far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro winning the country’s forthcoming presidential election as a foregone conclusion. His ugly rhetoric and seeming disregard for democratic norms have earned him the moniker of “the Brazilian Trump”, and like other populist leaders he has unabashedly come out in favor of the Israeli right’s policies. Two months ago, Bolsonaro openly declared that, if elected, he would follow the U.S.’s lead in moving the Brazilian Embassy to Jerusalem and close down the existent Palestinian Embassy in Brasilia, adopting a confrontational tone towards the P.L.O. not drastically different from that of the Trump administration. Members of the current coalition in Israel, always on the lookout for like minded international allies, are unlikely to have missed this.
This is especially pertinent given the last decade-and-a-half, which saw the presidencies of Luiz Lula de Silva and Dilma Rousseff maintaining a sometimes hostile foreign policy; strained relations with Israel, Brazil’s recognition of a Palestinian state in 2010, and Brasilia’s courting of states antagonistic towards Israel like Iran and Turkey marked these left-wing administrations. A right-wing president would be a major prize for the Israeli government, particularly one so willing — at least ostensibly — to denounce the Palestinian leadership and fall in line with the Trump administration’s handling of Middle East affairs, given its size, economy, and dominance in Latin American politics.
Besides undoing the record of two successive, highly unfriendly governments, a Bolsonaro presidency is sure to appeal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a variety of other reasons. Proposing the relocation of the embassy is likely an attempt to curry favor with the current American administration, putting Bolsonaro squarely in Trump’s camp. Indeed, the affinity Bolsonaro displays towards Trumpism and its populist worldview, particularly on foreign policy, cannot be ignored. An adviser close to the candidate has made as much clear, declaring that he plans to give right-wing diplomat Ernesto Fraga Arujo control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ushering in a dramatic shift in Brazilian foreign policy that, along with the embassy move, might include abandoning membership in major regional organizations like Mercosur.
In addition, the move legitimizes a controversial policy viewed by the overwhelming majority of countries as at best, unwise, and at worst the political equivalent of pyromania. Thus far, only Guatemala and Paraguay have followed in Washington’s footsteps, initially moving their embassies but later backtracking under international pressure. Brazil would easily be the most significant power to emulate Trump on Jerusalem, and other influential countries could still do the same, including Australia, whose prime minister opined days ago that his country is considering similar action (although this was later clarified to include simultaneous recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine).
It is also easy to detect in Bolsonaro’s blanket description of Palestinians as “terrorists” echoes of other populist leaders; one of the cornerstones of rising populism in the Western world has been an explicitly anti-Muslim paranoia that has manifested itself in opposition to immigration from predominantly Muslim countries. This is likely to sit well with Netanyahu who has long cultivated a “clash of civilizations” worldview that sees the wider Muslim world as a threat to Western society and Israel as a bulwark against Islamic barbarism, an element he has used to great effect in making common cause with illiberal and xenophobic governments like that of Hungary’s Viktor Orban. This binary has, unfortunately already played out during the campaign. After a far-left wing activist stabbed Bolsonaro last month, he refused to be treated at an Arab-Brazilian-run hospital and disseminated a conspiracy theory pitting Brazil’s Jewish and Arab populations against one another.
Finally, there is Brazil’s growing evangelical Christian population, with its strong affinity for the Jewish State. As in the United States, the evangelical community has made the embassy move to Jerusalem a priority, a shift in policy likely made all the easier by the candidate’s own religious leanings. For Netanyahu, the rising global power of pro-Israel evangelicals is a boon to his government; if his recent appearance at the Christian Media Summit in Jerusalem is any indication, he has shown far more comfort in courting the Christian religious right than engaging with the American Jewish community, which has fielded loud challenges to his government’s policies. Netanyahu has thus proven adept at instrumentalizing a highly selective nationalist narrative concerning Jerusalem, offering a romanticized image of a united capital that many evangelicals are more than happy to embrace without question.
Yet while Bolsonaro’s election may bring exceptional short-term gains for Netanyahu, a public embrace by the Israeli government could alienate the large swathe of the Brazilian population that views the candidate in almost apocalyptic terms, echoing the ongoing reduction of liberal support for Israel in the United States. A possible swing to the left during upcoming midterms in the United States may bring to power an ascendant Democratic Party in the House and Senate, leaving the Israeli government in the unenviable position of having to explain why it continues to vehemently throw its support behind the Trump administration. So too could a populist right-wing victory in Brazil give way in a few years’ time to a political reversal that brings to power a no-less populist left-wing candidate who may remind Jerusalem of its place on the wrong side of history and face an even more unpleasant repeat of the Lula de Silva/Rousseff years.