Brazil’s other Bolsonaro sees future embassy move as start of pro-Israel shift

President’s son, a powerful politician in his own right, touts possible 180-degree policy shift, including outlawing Hezbollah and recognizing settlements as legal

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Brazilian lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro at the Foreign Relations Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, in Brasilia, Brazil, August 14, 2019 (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Brazilian lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro at the Foreign Relations Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, in Brasilia, Brazil, August 14, 2019 (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Brazilian parliamentarian Eduardo Bolsonaro came to Israel on Sunday for a half-day visit to open Brazil’s trade office in Jerusalem, which, he declared, was the first step toward moving his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem some time next year.

But the senior lawmaker and son of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is open to many additional and not less dramatic changes on Brasilia’s Middle East policies.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Times of Israel minutes before he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurated the Jerusalem trade office, Eduardo Bolsonaro vowed to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, said he can imagine his government recognizing the legality of Israeli settlements, and toyed with the idea of closing the Palestinian embassy in Brazil.

He also refused to endorse a two-state solution, positing that it may be impossible for Israel to withdraw from any territory it controls today until its Arab neighbors recognize the Jewish state.

Eduardo Bolsonaro has repeatedly promised the embassy move, even as his father has seemingly balked at following through on it as well as a number of other pro-Israel campaign pledges, reportedly amid fears of downgraded diplomatic and business ties with the Arab world.

The younger Bolsonaro was noncommittal on whether Brasilia would really push ahead with dramatically shifting its foreign policy toward Israel, but declared that “we can change everything.”

For the time being, his focus is on fulfilling the elder Bolsonaro’s campaign promise to relocate the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“We’re only waiting for the best moment to do that,” he said. “It’s up to the president, this decision. But he said, on several opportunities, that he’s going to do that.”

His father was elected in 2018 for a four-year term, he noted. “Maybe next year, soon, he can take this decision.”

Eduardo Bolsonaro, Brazilian federal deputy and son of Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, at an event opening the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency in Jerusalem, December 15, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Nearly a third of Brazilians are evangelicals, “who pressure the president a lot to move the embassy,” Eduardo Bolsonaro said. The move also enjoys great support in Congress, he added. “It’s not a question of if but of when we are moving the embassy,” he said, repeating a statement he has made in the past.

He cited Paraguay, Brazil’s neighboring country that transferred its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018, but reversed the move less than four months later, as a reason for his government’s more cautious approach.

“Yes. It will happen. Let us just do it in a smart way,” he said about the embassy move, speaking in English. “It’s better to take a little bit more time and do the right thing than to take the wrong move and have to step back.”

He predicted that as South America’s largest and most powerful country, Brazil would help others follow suit. “When Brazil takes a nice step like moving the embassy, for sure you are going to have much more power to encourage the rest of the region to do the same.”

Israeli leaders had similar hopes when the United States became the first country in decades to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, leading the prime minister to declare that others would follow Washington’s lead.

Though several countries have promised to do so, only the Central American nation Guatemala has made the transfer, and Hungary, the Czech Republic and others have instead opened symbolic trade or cultural offices in Jerusalem aimed at preserving a delicate balance between alliances with Israel and the Arab world.

Brazil, which became the latest country to open a small trade office in Jerusalem, has reportedly shied away from moving the embassy there over fears that it could hurt its business as the world’s largest exporter of halal meat.

The Brazilian federal lawmaker, who chairs the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee of the Chamber of Deputies in the lower house of Congress, noted that his father had worked hard on bolstering commercial ties with the Persian Gulf states, indicating that an embassy move could survive a backlash.

Palestinian leaders have already decried Sunday’s opening of the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency’s Jerusalem office, calling it illegal and urging Arab countries to boycott the country.

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s Hanan Ashrawi went as far as accusing the South American nation of complicity in Israeli war crimes and for being responsible for “more violence and instability” in the region.

But Eduardo Bolsonaro shrugged off the criticism.

“I don’t think that if we move the embassy, we will suffer retaliation against our Brazilian products. I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he predicted.

“What we want is to have a good relationship with everybody. We don’t want to take part in this conflict. But we do believe that who decides where is the capital of your country is the highest authority of our country, the prime minister or the parliament,” he said.

Whence the Bolsonaros’ die hard support for Israel?

Bolsonaro, 35, was born in Rio de Janeiro and was trained as a lawyer and policeman before he entered parliament in 2015 as a representative for Sao Paulo. According to his website, he won his seat with 1,843,735 votes — more than any other congressman in the history of Brazil.

Like his populist, right-wing and homophobic father, he hasn’t been without controversy.

Earlier this month, in an interview with an Israeli television station, he reiterated his opposition to gay marriage, saying that if he wedded his dog it would still not make them a family.

In July, the president tapped him as Brazil’s next ambassador to the US, an appointment that was warmly welcomed by the White House but had triggered suspicions of nepotism back home. Brazilian lawmakers ended up blocking the nomination.

Brazilian congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, left, and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, son-in-law of US President Donald Trump, meet at the White House on November 27, 2018. (Twitter via JTA)

In May 2016, Eduardo Bolsonaro and his brothers with their father and a few other members of their Social Liberal Party came on a little-noticed parliamentary visit to Israel. It was at that moment he became a fan, he recalled.

For a whole week he was shown around the country by a Brazilian-Israeli tour guide, who effectively conveyed Israeli government talking points, which turned him from a casual supporter of Israel into a hot-blooded activist.

“I get really angry at skewed media reports about Israel,” he said, noting that he spends his time uploading videos to his social media accounts advocating on the Jewish state’s behalf. An app on his phone shows him every time a rocket is shot at Israel from Gaza.

“I would never support anyone who uses human shields trying to attack civilians of another country. I get really angry,” he said.

He has nothing against Palestinians, he stressed. But he fails to understand how anyone can be critical of the Israeli army, which makes efforts to warn civilians in Gaza before it attacks the building they are staying in.

“It’s incredible how you have press around the world that attack you. This is really disgusting,” he said.

His Christian faith is another factor in his die-hard support for Israel, the newly married lawmaker noted, adding that one of his aims as congressman is to improve Israel’s reputation in the world.

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)

And what about the Palestinians? During his presidential campaign, Jair Bolsonaro said Palestine is not a state and promised to close the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia.

But the younger Bolsonaro indicated that it was no longer a policy goal, saying that Brazil has “good relations” with the Palestinian people. Just like with Iran or Venezuela — the problem is not with the people but with the regime, he said.

“The Palestinians have a presence in Brazil. In Brazil, they live together with the Jews, with Muslims, with Christians — no problem. So why can’t we bring these peaceful relationships to the region here?” he said.

Then-Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, left, shakes hands with PA leader Mahmoud Abbas during in Bethlehem, March 16, 2010. (AP Photo/Musa al-Shaer, pool)

In December 2010, Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, officially recognized a Palestinian state.

“We can change everything, 180 degrees to the other side,” Eduardo Bolsonaro said. “I am not saying that it’s going to happen. The Palestinian embassy is still there in Brazil. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Brazil follows the same position as the US did.”

After a row over the US embassy move to Jerusalem, the Trump administration closed the PLO’s office in Washington, and demoted the US Consulate General in Jerusalem, which served as de-facto embassy to the Palestinians — into a “Palestinian Affairs Unit” operating under the auspices of the embassy.

So will Brazil close the Palestinian embassy?

“We didn’t talk much about it. We’re more focused on the movement of embassy to Jerusalem,” he said.

What’s his view on Palestinian statehood and a two-state solution?

“Nowadays, I think it’s pretty much impossible,” he responded, citing the 2005 Gaza Disengagement that led to Hamas shooting thousands of rockets into Israeli population centers.

“Maybe in the future, I don’t know. But now you need a little bit more time,” he added.

“The first step could maybe be the neighboring countries recognizing the rights of the Jewish people to have a state here. If they don’t do that, it’s very hard for Israel to hand over territory it controls today. The Israelis wouldn’t support a government that handed territories to the Palestinians without finding new ways to prevent groups like Hamas [taking over] this territory.”

Eduardo Bolsonaro greets students as he leaves the Santa Casa hospital where his father was hospitalized in Juiz de Fora, Brazil, Sept. 6, 2018 (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Eduardo Bolsonaro said he views favorably US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement about Israeli settlements no longer being considered illegal, but stressed it was not his prerogative to announce a change in Brazil’s position on the matter.

“Brazil today still follows the United Nations resolutions. So this must come from the president, from the executive power. Not from me, I am from the legislative power,” he said.

There “is always a possibility” that Brasilia would follow Washington’s lead, Bolsonaro went on. But pressed for his own stance on the matter, he stressed that he needs to discuss the issue with his assistants. “It hasn’t been that long since Pompeo said it. We’ll have to study it a little bit more.”

“Blacklisting Hezbollah? It is impossible not to.”

When will Brazil follow Paraguay, Argentina and Guatemala in declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization?

“We’re still studying the issue,” Bolsonaro said, noting that Brazil has a military presence in Lebanon. “Maybe it’ll be necessary to do some things before this recognition, to avoid any risk for our military in Lebanon. But sooner or later we’re also going to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.”

Especially since the Iranian-backed group carried out two deadly terror attacks in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s, “it is impossible not to take this step,” he said. “I think it will happen, sooner or later.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara take part in a welcoming ceremony upon their arrival in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, on December 28, 2018. Third-to-left is Brazilian MP Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

The Netanyahu government and the Bolsonaros get along great. Eduardo Bolsonaro said he rushed to the airport in late December 2018, when the prime minister and his wife arrived in Brazil, to be the first person to merit to shake their hands.

But what can be done to preserve the good relationship between Jerusalem and Brasilia in the post-Netanyahu, post-Bolsonaro era?

“If you have a good project that benefits both Brazil and Israel, you can expect other government to keep this good relationship,” he replied. “Because it’s good for your country. At least that’s what you can expect from a fair and honest government.”

Would a future leftist government relocate the Brazilian embassy back to Tel Aviv? “I don’t know,” he said, arguing that he cannot answer hypothetical questions.

“The best thing to do is to enjoy the present. Brazil and Israel have never been so close, and we have a lot of things to learn from each other in the fields of defense, high-tech, agriculture, and so on. We’re like old friends that didn’t talk anymore. Now we’re talking again.”

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