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Op-eds

Israel’s ties blossom with Brics – bar one

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The Brics bloc – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – has three billion people, and covers a quarter of the world’s land mass. These emerging powers are already challenging fading American and European dominance on the global stage. Why have four of them deepened their economic, political and military links with Israel, with South Africa notably out of step?
by STEVEN GRUZD | Nov 22, 2018

For one thing, they don’t let their sympathy for the Palestinians scupper a good deal. For another, they recognise Israeli superiority in fields like cyber security, technological innovation, and counter-terrorism. After the Cold War, they’ve let pragmatism prevail.

Tellingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to attend the inauguration of Brazil’s President-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, next January. Netanyahu has visited China three times, India once, and Russia six times (and met President Vladimir Putin nine times since September 2015).

He’s never visited South Africa.

Geographical and ideological distance made Israel’s ties with Brazil relatively weak. The left-leaning Brazilian government recognised Palestinian statehood in 2010 (balanced by President Lula da Silva’s trip to Israel that year). Brazil condemned “disproportionate use of force” by Israel in Gaza in 2014, and temporarily recalled its ambassador.

The right-wing Bolsonaro, dubbed the “tropical Trump” for his crassness, political incorrectness, and nationalist views, however, is openly pro-Israel. He promised to downgrade Palestinian diplomatic representation and move Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem (but fudged after Arab outrage). He plans to visit Israel, the United States, and Chile on his first presidential trip.

While Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union initially supported Israeli statehood, anticipating a socialist ally, it became virulently anti-Zionist during the Cold War. After the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed in 1991, more than one million Russian Jews made aliyah.

Russian is Israel’s third most spoken language, and Putin clearly considers Israel part of the Russophone world. The countries have closely co-ordinated interventions in Syria since September 2015, and will move beyond a recent incident where Russia blamed Israel for the deaths of 15 airmen. Russian public support for the Palestinians (and Iran) has not stopped close collaboration with Israel on drone purchases, two-way tourism, oil, nuclear technology, and innovation.

India opened its Tel Aviv embassy in 1992, but low-key relations predated that. It feared losing its leadership in the developing world by openly embracing Israel during the Cold War. Today, India is Israel’s biggest customer for military equipment, and they share intelligence and conduct joint military training. Relations flourished after Narendra Modi’s election in 2014. He visited Israel in 2017, and Netanyahu went to India in 2018. There is considerable co-operation in the fields of agriculture, biotechnology, information and communications technology, innovation and science, oil and gas production, space exploration, and tourism. India, too, is simultaneously pro-Palestinian, and extremely close to Israel.

Connections with China dwarf these, however. About 26 years after formal relations commenced, China is now Israel’s second largest trading partner. Israeli exports to China in the first half of 2018 were $2.8 billion (R39.3 billion), up 80% year-on-year. Since 2016, Israel and China have eased visa regulations, started direct flights, and undertaken hundreds of joint research projects and student exchanges.

China has lapped up Israeli technology in solar energy, medical devices, cyber security, irrigation and desalination, robotics, weaponry, and agriculture. China invests heavily in Israeli start-ups. More than 1 000 operate in China.

And, China is doing big things in Israel. It is refurbishing Haifa port, and has plans to build a high-speed rail link between the Mediterranean and Eilat, an alternative to the Suez Canal.

China’s growing role as a rising world power has drawn Israel closer. Jerusalem sees Beijing as an alternative to Europe, with a massive market, and less overt ideological pressure around the Palestinian question. Israel seeks to balance its over-reliance on the US, which has blocked some deals in weapons and technology being sold to China.

South Africa’s souring relations with Israel are well documented: it includes a threatened diplomatic downgrade, the recall of the ambassador, and a constant, vicious, one-sided invective against Israel.

South Africa pushed the Palestinian issue when it hosted the 10th Brics Summit in July. The Johannesburg declaration says, “Ultimately, lasting peace can only be established through broad-based, inclusive national dialogue with due respect for the independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of each of the countries of the region… We reiterate the need for renewed diplomatic efforts to achieve a just, lasting, and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict… through negotiations with a view to creating an independent, viable, territorially contiguous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel.”

Fairly mild and sensible stuff. Perhaps the other Brics tempered the declaration’s tone? Now, if only they could convince South Africa what it really stands to lose by shunning the Jewish state.

  • Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

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