Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro landed in Israel Sunday morning for the start of a two-day trip seen as a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the April 9 elections.
Bolsonaro, a right-wing firebrand who had made headlines for playing down the brutality of the country’s past military dictatorship, opened his comments in Portuguese at the reception ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday with the Hebrew phrase “Ani ohev et Israel,” or “I love Israel.”
He was expected to announce during the visit whether he will move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In his own comments, Netanyahu praised the Brazilian leader for his “faith in our shared heritage” and his commitment to improving Israeli-Brazilian ties.
“When you entered your post in January, we opened a new era in Israel-Brazil relations,” he said. “On your first visit outside the American continents, you’re in Israel to bring our relations to a new high.”
Netanyahu said the two were slated to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem during the visit.
He also told his guest about the ongoing tensions around the Gaza Strip, saying, “Mr. President, you’ve come at a tense time, and therefore I have ordered IDF forces to remain fully deployed around the Gaza Strip. That includes tanks, artillery, ground forces and air forces. We’re prepared for any scenario, and if we are forced to it — for a broad campaign. We will do what we must for Israel’s security.”
Netanyahu was accompanied by top cabinet members, but only those from his Likud party, a sign of the electoral significance of the event. They included Acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, drawing praise from Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump despite longstanding criticism from many governments that such moves could 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 presidential election in autumn 2018.
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 the Palestinian 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.
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.
“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 to 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.”
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.
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 that helped with rescue efforts in Brazil after the collapse of the Brumadinho Dam in January, which left at least 206 people dead.
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 that was bought by Intel in 2017.
Raphael Ahren and agencies contributed to this report.