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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-04-2024 06:32

Rhetoric vs. reality: Gaza conflict shows limits of Argentina and Brazil’s influence in Middle East

In the grand chessboard of Middle Eastern geopolitics, Argentina and Brazil find themselves limited more by the game's rules than by their own ambitions.

Of the long list of polarities which distinguish Javier Milei from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, few stand out as starkly as their postures toward the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

Even before the Hamas-led attack on Israel last October 7, Argentina’s eccentric head of state was garnering attention with his staunchly pro-Israel stance, routinely and proudly attracting the label of philosemite. Brazil’s veteran leftist leader, meanwhile, has offered a critical counterpoint, issuing full-throated condemnations of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for its military excesses. The two men respectively represent Israel’s friendliest and most hostile relationships in the Western Hemisphere, and yet, despite their assertive rhetoric, both leaders confront an unavoidable and inconvenient truth: the limits of their nations’ diplomatic reach.

Milei has carved out a distinctive, loudly Zionist position on the international stage. His support for Israel is not just a footnote in his ideological playbook but a headline, showcasing his alignment with policies which champion Israel's sovereignty and status as a regional hegemon.

In February, during a trip involving an emotional moment of prayer at the Western Wall, Milei indicated that Argentina would be relocating its embassy to Jerusalem. Travelling alongside his spiritual advisor, Rabbi Axel Wahnish, the man now designated as Ambassador to Israel, Milei backed the Netanyahu government’s military response and condemned Hamas in the strongest possible terms: "The free world can't remain indifferent in this case, as we see clear examples of terrorism and anti-Semitism and what I would describe as 21st century Nazism.”

These clear and forceful statements from Milei have been critical in strengthening bilateral relations.

“On a moral level, it’s very important for the people of Israel to know that other people and governments around the world appreciate the situation we’re in — that they understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and that they support those efforts,” says Adam Levene, Israel’s Deputy Ambassador to Argentina.

“And it’s specifically important for Argentina, because Argentina’s connection to Israel is a very special one on all kinds of different levels.” 

Lula, in contrast, has been unequivocal in his criticism of Israel's military actions in Gaza. He has been energetically and unabashedly reproachful of Netanyahu’s war cabinet. 

In the course of delivering remarks at February’s African Union Summit, Lula stated: "What is happening in the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian people has no parallel in other historical moments. In fact, it did exist when Hitler decided to kill the Jews.”

Unsurprisingly, these comments inflamed relations with Israel. Ambassadors were swiftly recalled and Lula himself was declared persona non grata on Israeli soil, pending a retraction of his statement.

The Brazilian president has also personally welcomed Brazilian nationals repatriated from the Gaza Strip, expressing deep concern over the tens of thousands of civilian casualties resulting from the conflict. Brazil’s massive Arab diaspora community is a significant force in the country. Some estimates of the demographic are as high as 12 million.

 

Unilateral options out of reach

Amidst the backdrop of an increasingly multi-polar world order, one in which countries of the Global South reassess their dependence on Western power-brokers, there has been renewed optimism that Brazil and Argentina could begin to emerge as more influential, independent, geopolitical actors, fulfilling a long-held regional dream.

“Lula now has a tremendous opportunity to construct a new doctrine, one that is cohesive, credible, and innovative,” proclaimed a Foreign Affairs op-ed in early 2023. 

“Brazil is back, and it can play a positive, even indispensable role in the region and in the world.”

The UK’s Royal United Services Institute, likewise, suggested that Milei’s global outlook demonstrates “a clear break from recent Argentine foreign policy, marked by the distancing of Buenos Aires from the orbit of the US and Europe, and a noticeable Latin American accent,” all while simultaneously resisting encroachments from China.

Such premonitions of influence and independence have not played out in the Levant.

Indeed, in the grand chessboard of Middle Eastern geopolitics, Argentina and Brazil find themselves players without queens or rooks, limited more by the game's rules than by their own ambitions. The distance separating them from the region isn't just geographical; it's political and economic, leaving them without the leverage that comes from deep trade dependencies or strategic alliances. 

“Neither Brazil nor Argentina are well-positioned to moderate between Israel and Hamas,” observes Benjamin Gedan, director of the Wilson Center's Latin America Program. 

“Neither has experience in the region, and both governments have adopted positions which would make it impossible to earn the trust of both parties to the conflict.”

Indeed, while Milei and Lula vocalise support or censure, their countries' actual influence in the region is muted. Europe, China, and the United States have entrenched economic interests and military footprints that dwarf all South American efforts. Without significant historical ties or a substantial presence in the region's intricate trade networks, Argentina and Brazil's calls for continuation or restraint resonate more as principled stances than as preludes to change.

 

Impact through partnership

While it’s true that neither Argentina nor Brazil have been able to leverage influence unilaterally to any great extent, they have been able to contribute to coalition projects — regional stabilisation efforts like the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). 

Since 1978, UNIFIL has had a peacekeeping presence in South Lebanon with the goal of preventing an escalation in hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite group that some consider to be the most powerful non-state military in the world. Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on Israel have occurred on a near daily basis since October 7, with the militia’s leadership vowing to continue their barrages for as long as Israel’s Gaza campaign goes on. 

UNIFIL’s 10,000-strong contingent of international troops stationed near the border includes both Argentines and Brazilians. Despite being limited by a relatively narrow mandate, these personnel have been useful in preventing the cross-border exchanges from escalating to a full-scale war, and, more broadly, in demonstrating an international commitment to peace.

“The importance of having a wide distribution of member states in UNIFIL has always been relevant because it shows how the international community prioritises peace in this region,” said Andrea Tenenti, UNIFIL’s Chief of Strategic Communications.

“It’s important, specifically for countries in South America, to have a presence of troops in this part of the world,” Tenenti adds. “Also keep in mind that Lebanese are everywhere in the world… the largest number is probably in Brazil, and there is also a large community of Lebanese in Argentina.”

These collective efforts are useful to the extent that they moderate and pacify but their impacts are ultimately circumscribed by the global community’s reluctance to stake out a more active position. Superpower plays can only be made by superpower players. Middle powers, even leading middle powers, lack that potency.

Despite the sonorous proclamations of Latin America’s two most authoritative leaders, multilateral projects like UNIFIL may represent the limits of Latin American influence on the dramatic and seemingly endless quagmire in the Middle East. 

The policy levers which the Milei and Lula may aspire to pull, presumably with opposite ramifications, are simply out of reach.

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Sam Forster

Sam Forster

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