Brazil president heads to Israel with embassy move up in the air

Jair Bolsonaro, due in Jerusalem Sunday for two-day trip, promised to move mission after election, but has since seemingly backtracked; will meet Netanyahu, Rivlin

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attends a military awards ceremony in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, March 28, 2019. (Eraldo Peres)
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attends a military awards ceremony in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, March 28, 2019. (Eraldo Peres)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was heading for an official visit to Israel Sunday morning, where he was expected to announce whether he will move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Bolsonaro, a right-wing firebrand who had made headlines for playing down the brutality of the country’s past military dictatorship, is set to arrive in Israel for a two-day trip.

He has repeatedly promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, drawing praise from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump despite longstanding complaints that such moves would complicate efforts to reach peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“As I promised during the campaign, we intend to move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel is a sovereign country and we respect them,” Bolsonaro tweeted four days after winning the election.

But Bolsonaro has appeared to backtrack in recent weeks.

On Thursday, he told reporters he may instead announce the opening of a “business office” in Jerusalem during his visit to Israel.

Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo told reporters earlier this month the government was “still studying” the embassy transfer plan.

In January, Bolsonaro’s vice president, retired army Gen. Hamilton Mourao, met with Palestine’s ambassador to Brazil. After the meeting, he told reporters, “Brazil, for now, is not thinking of moving the embassy.”

Palestinian leaders and officials from across the Arab world advocated strongly against such a move, which would be seen as an “attack” on Palestinian people and a breach of international law, the Palestinian envoy to the Latin American country said recently.

A man throws a shoe at the US Embassy, during a protest against Israel’s military strikes on the Gaza Strip, in Rio de Janeiro, Thursday, January 8, 2009. (AP/Silvia Izquierdo)

Brazil is the largest producer of beef that meets Islamic halal standards and Bolsonaro’s repeated promises to move the embassy have drawn warnings from the Arab League and the Arab-Brazilian chamber of commerce.

Marco Bastos, a political analyst, said Bolsonaro has two groups to please domestically with the move: evangelicals, a large part of his base, and the Brazilian Jewish community.

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)

“The new right in Brazil is trying to imitate the new right in the US. There’s no real strategic interest in moving the embassy,” Bastos said, citing Brazil’s long tradition of pragmatic, friendly relations with nearly all foreign countries and the nation’s multi-billion-dollar meat exports to Arab countries.

The decision to open an office or mission but not move the full embassy would follow similar moves by European states that have sought to show solidarity with Israel and the US but without upending decades of diplomatic policy.

In recent weeks, several countries have opened or announced plans to open trade or cultural centers in the capital, including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.

Bolsonaro is an open admirer of Trump, whom he visited on his first trip abroad as Brazil’s president.

So far, the US and Guatemala are the only countries to move their embassies in Jerusalem. Paraguay moved its embassy to the city last year, but has since relocated it to Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu visited Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro in December and told reporters that “Bolsonaro said it was not a matter of if, but a matter of when.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left center, is received by Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro at the military base Fort Copacabana, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 28, 2018. (Leo Correa/Pool Photo via AP)

Earlier this month, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told The Times of Israel that “We’re not aware of any change in the president’s position. We really want a declaration during his upcoming visit.”

Bolsonaro’s trip comes 10 days before Israelis go to the polls and as Netanyahu has sought to play up his diplomatic achievements.

Last week, the prime minister watched Trump sign a declaration recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the first country to do so since Israel effectively annexed the territory over 35 years ago, in a move widely seen as timed to help boost him at the ballot box.

Then Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, left, shakes hands with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas during a welcome ceremony at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on March 16, 2010. (AP Photo/Musa al-Shaer, pool)

The last Brazilian leader to visit Israel was Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2010. Israeli leaders chided da Silva at the time for laying a wreath at the grave of Yasser Arafat but refusing to visit the tomb of Theodor Herzl.

Bolsonaro is not slated to visit Ramallah or meet with Palestinian Authority officials during his trip.

In Jerusalem, he is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, and visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. He is also expected to visit the Home Front Command and grant an award to the Israeli rescue delegation.

He will be joined by Netanyahu at an Israel-Brazil innovation summit that will bring together leading businesspeople from both countries. Bolsonaro will also visit the offices of Mobileye, an autonomous driving company based in Jerusalem.

AFP contributed to this report.

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