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Brazil Rejects Israel's Ambassador; Israel Threatens Relations Downgrade

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Israel is in a standoff with Brazil. Israel chose a new ambassador to Brazil. The Brazilians are refusing to receive him, and Israel is refusing to send anybody else. This diplomatic dispute becomes a major story because of the reason for it, which we're going to explore with correspondents in both Jerusalem and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which is where we find NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

Lourdes, what is the problem that Brazil has with the ambassador?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Well, everything, pretty much. He is someone who is involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a fundamental way. Let's start with who Dani Dayan is. He was the former head of one of the main settler councils, the Yesha Council, which is a kind of umbrella organization for settlements in the occupied West Bank. Now, you know, for some countries this might not be an issue, but Brazil has made a point of its policies on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. You know, under the former president, they recognized a Palestinian state. This president, Dilma Rousseff, withdrew her ambassador temporarily from Israel during the most recent Gaza conflict in protest over civilian deaths.

So you know, formally, what the government here is saying is that Israel's prime minister announced the appointment on Twitter. He didn't follow diplomatic protocol. But what we know is that it's about much more than that. It is about who Dani Dayan is.

INSKEEP: It's a substantive disagreement with the Israeli government. But Emily Harris of NPR News, who's in Jerusalem, I want to bring you into the conversation because surely Israel's government was aware of Brazil's objections. Why did they choose this particular ambassador?

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Yes, they're very certainly aware of Brazil's policies, and senior Israeli officials though, say that Prime Minister Netanyahu selected Dani Dayan as the best man for the job. They actually cite his Latin American roots. He was born not in Brazil but in Argentina and immigrated to Israel as a teen. Dayan is not a professional diplomat, but Israeli officials say that Netanyahu knows him personally, likes him and respects him. They also say his job would be to represent Israeli government policy, not Brazilian government policy. Certainly, supporting settlements is something that's important to the right-wing coalition government that Netanyahu has put together.

INSKEEP: What makes it hard for either side to back down here?

HARRIS: Well, for Israel, a couple of things. One, Dayan is making a case that they should not back down. The backdrop for Israel is a concern that whether other countries might at some point act on often long-held policies against Israeli settlements. Most countries, even though they may not put it as forefront as Brazil, don't recognize Israel's claim to the West Bank and they say that building homes for Jewish Israelis there, settlements, undermines a negotiated solution between the two sides. Often that policy doesn't go beyond diplomatic discussions. But already, for example, this fall, Israel saw Europe move to label at the consumer level certain products to make it clear to consumers whether they are Israeli products made in Israel as it's recognized by most international countries or whether it's made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Now, the EU says this was to give consumers full information. Dani Dayan, in this case, has drawn a parallel. He's saying if Brazil refuses his appointment, it's like labeling people, not just products, from Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

INSKEEP: Well, from the Brazilian point of view, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, why would Brazilians not simply just go on with diplomacy? This is symbolic, after all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I mean, first of all, you know, Israel is a big provider of military technology to Brazil and this has caused a big breach in the two sides of the government. On the one hand, you have the diplomatic side. On the other side, Brazil's military has been quoted in the local press as being quite upset that this diplomatic standoff could affect the military relationship. But we spoke yesterday with the man who is Dilma Rousseff's defense minister, his name is Celso Amorim, and he's come out pretty strongly saying Brazil should not allow itself to be pressured by Israel. He says Israel is trying to legitimize the settlements, and he said, quote, "Dayan is the leader of a policy condemned by the United Nations, and as such, it would go against Brazil's interest and world peace to allow him to become ambassador here." And for the moment, it doesn't look like the Brazilians are going to be standing down on this issue.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem.

Thanks to you both.

HARRIS: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: They're discussing Brazil's refusal to receive an ambassador from Israel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.