Ahead of Netanyahu visit, incoming Brazilian leader blasts Israel critics

Jair Bolsonaro lauds importance of Israeli tech, says those criticizing talks with Jerusalem on deepening bilateral relationship ‘do nothing, only destroy and steal’

Brazil's president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, center, poses for photos during a lunch with popular singers who supported his campaign, at the Army Club, in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. (AP/Eraldo Peres)
Brazil's president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, center, poses for photos during a lunch with popular singers who supported his campaign, at the Army Club, in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. (AP/Eraldo Peres)

Brazil’s incoming president Jair Bolsonaro pushed back against critics and feted burgeoning ties with Israel Thursday, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his way to Brasilia for the new leader’s swearing in.

Jair Bolsonaro said those who were protesting his drive to develop deeper ties with Israel had done nothing to help Latin America’s biggest country.

“There is no reason to criticize dialogue, especially when the criticism comes from those who did nothing, only destroyed and stole from the country,” Bolsonaro said on Twitter.

He said Brazil was interested in technological services that Israel is a world leader in, likely referring to agritech and cyber security.

“We want the best for Brazil,” he wrote.

The comments came shortly after Netanyahu played up potential ties with Brasilia as he boarded a plane for Rio de Janiero to attend Bolsonaro’s inauguration next week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in the Knesset plenum for a vote on a bill to dissolve parliament, in Jerusalem on December 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I’m glad that we can open a new era in Israel’s relationship with this superpower,” he said, describing Brazil as “a vast nation that represents vast potential for Israel, including in the economic, security and diplomatic realms.”

He said Bolsonaro was heralding “profound changes” in bilateral ties.

Bolsonaro said Thursday he was looking forward to talks with Netanyahu to discuss expanding ties, calling it an “unprecedented moment of our history.”

Bolsonaro’s strong support of Israel won him praise from the country’s large evangelical population. But the strongman has also been criticized over his vow to move his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to close the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia.

His election is seen as marking a hard-right shift for the country, which has traditionally maintained positive relationships with the Palestinians.

In 2010, Brazil was the first South American country to recognize a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders.

Demonstrators light flares and hold Palestinians flags as they protest against clashes in Gaza and the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (AP/Andre Penner)

The Arab and Muslim world has warned Bolsonaro that a possible move of the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem would negatively affect commercial ties. Brazil is among the largest exporters of halal meat to the Arab world, and exporters have reportedly lobbied Bolsonaro not to move the embassy and risk harming the industry.

Netanyahu is expected to land in Rio de Janeiro Friday, where he will hold meetings with Bolsonaro, Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva and Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo.

On Monday, he is scheduled to fly to the capital, Brasilia for several events at the Presidential Palace, the Foreign Ministry Palace, and at the National Congress surrounding the inauguration.

Earlier this week, sources in Netanyahu’s office told Hebrew-language media outlets that he is considering cutting his trip short due to the political developments in Israel. But on Wednesday evening, after the Knesset voted to disband and hold early elections in April, the prime minister decided to go ahead with the original travel plan.

“Bolsonaro’s election marks a new era in Israel-Brazil relations and he fully intends to strengthen this relationship on all levels — political and economic — throughout his tenure,” Leah Soibel, the founder and CEO of Fuenta Latina, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit seeking to improve ties between Latin America and the Jewish state, told The Times of Israel this week.

“To illustrate just how important this trip to Brazil is, Netanyahu is still pressing ahead with it despite all of the challenges he faces at home,” she said. “The fact that he didn’t cancel it speaks volumes.”

Supporters of far-right lawmaker and presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro, celebrate in Rio de Janeiro, after the former army captain won Brazil’s presidential election, on October 28, 2018. (CARL DE SOUZA / AFP)

Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, last year made the first trip by a sitting Israeli prime minister to Latin America, visiting Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.

He has sought to expand Israel’s diplomatic reach through technology and defence exports, and has worked to persuade more countries to vote in his country’s favour at the United Nations, where it faces frequent criticism over its treatment of the Palestinians.

“Step by step, methodically and persistently, we are turning Israel into a rising global power,” he told his cabinet Sunday.

“Brazil is a huge market, almost 250 million people; the opening of this gigantic market will create new jobs in Israel and will greatly help the Israeli economy,” he added.

Brazilian Jews wave Brazilian and Israeli flags and take part in chants supporting Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on OCtober 27, 2018, ahead of Brazil’s upcoming presidential elections. (Screen capture: Channel 20)

Even before Bolsonaro’s election in October, trade ties between the countries had been picking up for years. In March, Israeli Science Minister Ofer Akunis traveled to Brazil to work on trade agreements, with bilateral trade already surpassing $1 billion annually.

“Israel is strong in technology, but we are not growing coffee or producing meat,” Israeli Ambassador Yossi Shelley told The Brazilian Report at the time. “And now, those things are being brought here in good quantities. It’s a win-win.”

Brazil is also among Israel’s largest buyers of defense equipment. Last year, a Brazilian subsidiary of Elbit Systems Ltd., Israel’s largest non-government-owned defense company, signed a $100 million framework contract to supply the Brazilian army with remote-controlled weapon stations.

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