On dwarfs and rabbits in diplomacy

It is time for Brazil to give up its diplomatic timidity and stand up to Israel’s arrogance.

An Israeli official recently called Brazil a 'diplomatic dwarf' [AFP/Getty Images]

In academic circles, a little anecdote is sometimes told: A small rabbit puts forward the argument that it is, in fact, the most powerful animal in the forest. One after the other, all the usual predators – the fox, the hyena, the wild dogs – all called upon to verify the truthfulness of the proposition behind the nearby bush – end up dead. At the end, we find out that behind the rabbit’s thesis stood the lion, king of the jungle, who with heavy paws, would tear the adversaries to pieces.

The ultimate strength of an idea comes from the power that stands behind it.

In contemporary international relations, one is sometimes at a loss to decide whether Israel is the rabbit who was able to forge a special partnership with the lion, the United States, or whether this lion has been in some way hypnotised into serving the power agenda of the little rabbit.

A mix of the two is likely, but, as in any marriage, only the partners know for sure what it is about.

In any case, the automatic alignment of the lion and its court – the Europeans and some others – allows Israel to perceive itself as much more than a giant in the international arena. Israel, according to its own view, holds all truths. The mere fact that a cause is an Israeli cause makes it a just cause.

Maybe, in Old Testament language, it sees itself as bestowed with the right to dominate all that was created, with, therefore, the prerogative to nominate and classify all things.

This is why, when it was the object of just criticism – which, by the way, would have been even more just if it only had been less timid – made by Brazil, it decided that it was entitled to qualify us as “diplomatic dwarfs“.

Because we dare to disagree with Israel, we are automatically thrown in with “irrelevant” nations.

Notice the arrogance: Israel is alone entitled to decide who is relevant in the construction of a just solution, a job in which it says – and this is as tragic as it is comic – it is seriously committed. If you disagree with the thesis, you will be gently invited to come behind the bush and be properly devoured.

A diffident streak

There is much to be said about Brazilian foreign policy concerning the Middle East, and there is much that deserves criticism. Some of the criticism might indeed be directed at its timidity.

There is, however, much that is good and that would be even better, if Brazil decided to abandon some of its bashfulness.

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Brazil has been, for much of the recent past, facing a choice between a diplomatic and trade presence in the Middle East and an absence from the region.

Brazil’s discourse, centred on the primacy of international law, is consistent and has withstood the test of time. It is honestly held and lends credibility to our diplomacy.

For quite some time, however, Brazil has chosen not to involve itself in the region, as our leadership believed the Middle East required larger steps than our legs could afford.

But as it stayed away it couldn’t aspire to have a place among the great and, what is worse, it could not effectively participate in the search for a just solution to one of the crucial problems of international society, a problem with profound moral implications: the question of Palestine.

Its absence from the discussion effectively resulted in leaving the way open to the triumph of the Israeli agenda of occupation and gradual incorporation of Palestinian land.

Only during the past few years was a decision made to have a real presence in the Middle East. This has presented many challenges that cannot be satisfactorily dealt with here, in such a short piece.

Taking a stand

At this point, in light of the circumstances, it is better to focus on the Palestinian question and leave momentarily aside all the other complex issues that the Middle East challenges us with.

In respect to Palestine, one main reason for what could be seen as a fluctuation of the Brazilian position is to be found in Brazil’s concern with maintaining and projecting an image of impartiality, of equidistance, of an equal proximity to the Palestinians and to the Israelis.

This may be enough for someone who wants to continue to be seen as a friend to everyone, for someone who wants to offer humanitarian assistance here, and to close trade and defence cooperation deals there.

However, for whomever wishes to attack the main issue and search for a just solution to a tragic problem, that silence – thought of as impartiality – ends up consisting in the support of the stronger in its oppression of the weaker.

It is to be believed that Brazil has a clear perception of this fact, but still may be somewhat demure about expressing clearly what it knows to be true. And to the timidity we can add a certain diplomatic style that one may call cordial, which allows others to persist in bold arrogance.

When for example, Brazil’s foreign minister, reacting to the nation being dubbed “a diplomatic dwarf”, used a typical nice guy tone, saying: “We have never denied Israel’s right to self-defence,” he not only failed to respond with the acidity required by the arrogance of the accusation, but conveyed the wrong message on what impartiality really means.

It is true that all states have, according to international law, the right to self-defence. Brazil knows this and upholds this, but to put the matter in these terms, at this moment, gives the impression that Brazil could in fact believe that all the absurd actions taken by Israel during these recent days and even during the several past decades have any proximity to the notion of self-defence.

It is therefore time for Brazil to reject the accusation of diplomatic irrelevance and to tell the rabbit that its thesis is false and that its cause is unjust – even if the rabbit is still standing on the shoulders of the lion.

Salem Nasser is Professor of International Law at Fundacao Getulio Vargas in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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