Allia Bukhari

Israel and the BRICS: A tightrope to walk

The BRICS bloc of developing economies welcomed five new members as the world entered 2024. The countries joining the group, which is dominated by China and, to some extent, Russia, include heavyweights from the Middle East like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — both countries that were normalizing ties with Israel in the not so distant past in a United States-brokered peace process. Other new members include Iran, a key player from the region, as well as Egypt and Ethiopia.  Argentina pulled out at the last minute in a foreign policy shift under the newly elected far-right President Javier Milei’s government, which has pledged closer ties with the West.

The BRICS group is increasingly being seen as a counterweight to the West and the G7 and an alliance representative of the Global South, economically and politically. It has been sparking interest among various developing countries, willing to seek membership, from Pakistan in South Asia to Algeria in North Africa. The development of more countries joining and expressing interest signals a shift in the geopolitical dynamics of the region, particularly the Middle East, engulfed in a war at present and on the brink of escalating serious tensions after the Beirut bombing on January 2.

In November, leaders of the BRICS countries called for an end to Israel’s war on Gaza and a cessation of hostilities on both sides, alarmed at the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Gaza Strip. Its members, including Brazil, Russia, India, China and a few Arab and African nations, termed the “forced displacement” of Palestinians, within Gaza or outside the territory, “war crimes” in the virtual session of the bloc which was chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. The Chinese President reiterated at the summit that there can be no sustainable peace and security in the Middle East without a just solution to the question of Palestine, as he vowed assistance to help ease the suffering in war-torn Gaza. The session was conducted to formulate a common response to the Israel-Hamas conflict that has taken countless civilian lives since October 7. The individual autonomy of the countries in the BRICS and their longstanding take on the Israel-Palestine issue, however, comes into play.

South Africa, a prominent member of the BRICS bloc, has been undergoing tensions in its diplomatic relations with Israel lately. A cooperation once driven by shared economic goals and ideological leanings, the ties between the two countries have spiraled downwards with Pretoria taking on an aggressive approach to Israel’s handling of the Gaza crisis, where the Jewish state faces the conundrum of wiping out Hamas while minimizing civilian fatalities as much as possible. Israel has long accused Hamas of using the Palestinian population as human shields, while the IDF has unearthed tunnels under civilian infrastructure used for terror purposes.

Late December, South Africa filed an application instituting proceedings against Israel before the International Court of Justice (the ICJ) in The Hague, concerning alleged violations by Israel of its obligations to the Genocide Convention with regard to Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip. South African lawmakers as well as President Ramaphosa have called Israel’s actions in Gaza “tantamount to genocide”.

Brazilian President Lula da Silva has also taken on a harsher tone lately in equating Israel’s actions in Gaza with genocide and accusing it of “killing innocent people without any criteria”. Earlier, though, he attempted to hold one side or the other accountable, pursuing a balancing act much in line with the division in his own country on the matter between the left and the right. Lula stressed an economically viable Palestinian state and condemned acts on Israel by Hamas the same day while underscoring the need to resume negotiations. 

Among the BRICS leaders, Israel may see a confidant in India’s Narendra Modi, who at the time of the Hamas attacks, expressed solidarity with Israel and since then has shown condemnation and remorse for the civilian fatalities in the war. Bilateral ties between the two countries have been amicable since the 1990s and had a renewed push during the Hindu nationalist BJP government led by Modi himself. Security and defense cooperation binds the two together. India even abstained from a U.N. resolution on October 27 that called for a humanitarian truce in which 120 countries voted in favor. In November, however, it supported a U.N. General Assembly resolution that condemned Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. New Delhi understands the trajectory of its relations with Arab allies and Israel and seeks to maintain a balance. The ideological affinities are apparent, nonetheless, between the incumbent governments in India and Israel.

Russia, on the other hand, has used the conflict for political gains, blaming the United States for a “failed policy” in the Middle East. Putin offered condolences to Israel on the loss of lives days after the attack. Moscow’s need for closer ties with the Global South in the wake of the war in Ukraine and the economic fall out from it may have jeopardized relations with Tel Aviv. Russia has also been a consistent supporter of a two-state solution, accusing the US of exacerbating current challenges in the region.

Most of the current BRICS members do not share the same loyalties to Israel the way many Western countries do, and it allows them to embrace a harsher stance concerning Israel’s actions. Despite a divided Global South, post-colonial grievances with the western world unite these countries in seeing Israel through a critical lens. The BRICS is also emerging as a counterbalance to the “pro-Zionist stance” of the West and its expansion does affect Israel in its efforts to normalize ties with nations in this part of the world. The challenge for the current members of the BRICS would be maintaining their individual economic and commercial ties with Israel, condemning Hamas while simultaneously navigating their role as the anti-colonial voice of the Global South. 

About the Author
The writer is a journalist from Pakistan and an Erasmus Mundus scholar.
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