The issue of Israel joining BRICS is irrelevant, both from a procedural point of view and in the context of the interests of each of the parties, Elizaveta Yakimova writes. However, the expansion of the association to the Middle East and attempts to develop a consolidated position on the problems of the region play the role of altering the positioning of BRICS in Israel’s foreign policy coordinates.
The BRICS association consistently demonstrates an interest in accepting new members into its ranks, including representatives of the Middle East. However, Israel, which maintains friendly relations with most of the current member countries of the association, has not yet expressed its readiness to move closer to BRICS. At the current stage, this circumstance can be attributed to the IDF operation against Hamas, which requires not only a concentration of efforts on combat operations, but also the unconditional support from a key global ally, the United States. Israel has reacted negatively toward Iran’s joining BRICS. However, it seems that the Israeli motivation to refrain from integration in reality looks much broader.
The emergence of the association of Brazil, Russia, India and China occurred for Israel during the period of the Ehud Olmert government. This administration concentrated on regional issues, which were determined by the Second Lebanon War and the participation of the Foreign Ministry under the leadership of Tzipi Livni in the preparation of the conference on the Middle East peace settlement in Annapolis. As a result, the emergence of BRIC (at that time) attracted virtually no attention from Israel’s diplomatic corps. The first Ekaterinburg BRIC summit in 2009, which coincided with the start of Benjamin Netanyahu’s second cabinet, did not radically change the situation.
Despite the attempt by the then-authorities of the Middle Eastern country to transform their foreign policy course in contrast to their predecessors, in the case of BRICS it was not possible to follow the path of the “Customs Troika” — at a certain stage, the most popular integration project in Israel in which Moscow was a participant. The growing desire for rapprochement with the alliance of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan was influenced by Israel’s attempt to diversify international ties against the backdrop of tense relations between Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet and the administration of Barack Obama. A significant role in setting priorities at the time was played by Avigdor Lieberman, who headed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and promoted the expansion of interaction with the former USSR, where he himself was from. In the case of BRICS, there were no similar lobbyists in Israeli political circles.
Continuing comparisons, the factor of the association’s expansion did not serve as a catalyst for interest. For example, Israel’s attention to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization began to increase in the context of the possibility of granting Egypt the status of SCO dialogue partner. The transformation of BRIC into BRICS occurred after the accession of South Africa, which has tense relations with Israel. In addition, BRICS did not offer additional forms of interaction more familiar to a Middle Eastern state that is part of the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue and has an Association Agreement with the EU.
As a result, only in 2017, Israel finally began to attach importance to expanding contacts with the BRICS in a way which was noticeable at the official level. Commenting on the results of the 9th BRICS summit in the Chinese city of Xiamen, Israeli Minister of Industry and Trade Eli Cohen, who had visited China a few months earlier, emphasised the good prospects of the association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in the context of opportunities for diversifying international economic ties. At the same time, a potentially attractive opportunity for Israel was the chance to expand cooperation with partners outside its region, compensating for losses from a predominantly unfriendly neighbourhood.
Apparently, China was considered a key partner in the BRICS for the Israeli authorities, which was reinforced by the parallel development of bilateral contacts between the Benjamin Netanyahu government and Beijing. Russia did not play a central role in the Israeli understanding of BRICS, which can be explained by the nature of bilateral relations, where the political and diplomatic track traditionally overshadows economic cooperation. However, at the current stage, characterised by confrontation between Moscow and the West, this feature has, rather, a positive effect on Russian-Israeli relations.
From an economic point of view, Israel admits to the great potential of BRICS, which further strengthens by the involvement of new countries. However, experts from the Middle Eastern country believe that its full implementation will only be possible in around 2030, which means that at least there is no need to rush with its own integration with the BRICS. In addition, at the current stage, the Netanyahu government is under serious pressure from the United States, which is seeking to contain contacts between Israel and China. Finally, the situational limiter to building up ties with BRICS remains the association’s disinterest in building interregional free trade zones, while such agreements are of great importance for Israel.
However, despite the lack of steps towards rapprochement with the BRICS, factors that the Israeli leadership cannot ignore are already clearly visible. First of all, we are talking about the gradual consolidation of the positions of the BRICS member countries on current international issues. The November extraordinary summit of the association on the situation in the Middle East demonstrated, first, the desire to take into account the opinion of representatives of the region who received an invitation to the meeting before the official completion of the procedure for joining BRICS. Second, although the final declaration was not adopted, the tendency of the participants to make concessions in the interests of a common opinion became noticeable, which has a double effect for Israel. On the one hand, South Africa, which was critical of the IDF’s actions, was forced to accept a softening of the general rhetoric. On the other hand, Brazil, which previously condemned the attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, agreed with the call for a ceasefire and the protection of Palestinian civilians, guided, among other things, by considerations of its chairmanship of the UN and participation in BRICS.
The effect of Iran’s joining BRICS is also important. While Israel was focused on confronting the nuclear programme and the growing regional presence of its main enemy, Tehran took a significant step towards strengthening its international political and economic position, including through rapprochement with the Middle Eastern states, which were friendly to Israel.
Thus, given the presence of a certain integration potential, the issue of Israel joining BRICS is irrelevant, both from a procedural point of view and in the context of the interests of each of the parties. However, the expansion of the association to the Middle East and attempts to develop a consolidated position on the problems of the region play the role of altering the positioning of BRICS in Israel’s foreign policy coordinates.