Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro. The Israeli premier has been invited to attend Bolsonaro’s presidential inauguration today. Image Credit: AFP

Rio De Janeiro - Dubai: Israel, in the past few years, has launched a global charm offensive, aimed specifically at Latin American countries.

Tel Aviv’s outreach there comes as it struggles to improve of its international reputation that has been tarnished by its own brutal policies against Palestinians.

Since September 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Latin America (Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia Mexico and just recently Brazil) on three occasions, becoming the first sitting Is-raeli premier to visit the region. Just a few days ago, he hit the road again, paying a visit to his new Brazilian president friend, Jair Bolsonaro, who also invited him to attend his presidential inauguration on Jan. 1.

Rise of right-wing parties

With the rise of right-wing parties and populist leaders in Latin America, Israel is seizing the moment to establish closer political and economic ties with the continent.

Traditionally, Latin America has been sympathetic towards the Palestinians and their cause.

They were quick to condemn Israeli actions at the United Nations.

However, this seems to be slowly changing amid an Israeli charm offensive.

Already, Brazil has said it was considering moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Occupied Jerusalem, after the US administration did so this year.

It could be that these Latin American countries are hoping to indirectly score points with Washington, which under the administration of US President Donald Trump, is the most pro-Israeli to date.

The decision to back American politics towards Israel, didn’t go unnoticed by the US.

Honduras and Guatemala supported Washington at last December’s UN General Assembly vote, condemning the US move to recognise the Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate American embassy there.

They were subsequently invited to a “friendship” party by Washington.

Influence of Evangelicals

Beside diplomatic and personal links between Israel and Latin American states, the growing influence of the Evangelical Christians in these countries should not be overlooked.

“They are hoisting the banner of normalisation with Israel,” Shehab Al Makahleh, a political analyst and the president of the Geostrategic Media Center, tells Gulf News.

Evangelical Christians are widespread in South and Central America and many of them feel connected to the Jewish cause.

One should not forget that several Latin American countries, including Guatemala, have Evangelical Christian heads of state.

Israeli charm offensive

While Israel enjoys the upper hand militarily, it has long been losing the moral battle with its brutal occupation of the Palestinian people.

So, Israel has made it a point to change that and has launched a charm offensive diplomatically to try to change its bad image abroad.

Ultimately, Israel wants this to translate at the UN General Assembly votes, which have historically criticised Israeli policies.

“This may take decades but as we can see there are small signs already that the broad pattern is becoming more favourable to Israel,” Anders Persson, a post doctorate researcher at the Centre for European Politics at the University of Copenhagen, tells Gulf News.

Its charm offensive is not limited to Latin America and is taking place in Europe, Russia, Africa and parts of Asia as well.

Countries led by right-wing strongmen are also more receptive of Israel’s outreach, Perssons explains.

Also, Israel’s increasing importance in the tech world has also allowed it to build important bridges with nations around the world.

“But beyond the economics, the main Israeli aim has been to whittle away at the historical support that Palestinians enjoy in multilateral institutions such as the UN,” Hugh Lovatt , a policy fellow at European Council on Foreign Relations, told Gulf News.

Will it work?

What seems to be the case is that it really depends on who is in power.

In May, Paraguayan outgoing president Horacio Cartes announced that his country would also move its embassy to Occupied Jerusalem but only a few months later, his successor, Mario Abdo Benítez, reversed that decision.

This was, of course, warmly welcomed by Palestinians and angered Israelis to the point that they closed the embassy in Asunción.

And following the years of diplomatic tensions, Israel and Brazil are about to start a new chapter in their relations after Netanyahu’s five-day visit to the largest South American economy.

Brazil has historically voted against Israel in international forums.

As a member of the BRICS Group, which also includes China, India, Russia, and South Africa, Brazil has taken a tough line on Israel and has rejected calls to cooperate with it.

Israel was deeply angered by Brazil’s opposition to sanctions against Iran in 2009 and after the visit of leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to Tehran.

This could all change under the new right-wing president-elect Jair Bolsonaro and there is a strong chance he does recognise Occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy there.

Bolsonaro “has actively sought to compare himself to Trump, and his son has also been in talks with Trump’s son and the Middle East advisor Jason Kushner so this would seem like a natural outcome. If this did happen, it would have as much to do with Brazil’s relations with Israel, as its relations with the US and currying favour with Trump,” Lovatt added.

“Under Bolsonaro, Brazil could cool off its relationship with Iran and stop its infiltration into South America,” he said.

-Stasa is a roving freelance journalist