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Eyeing new diplomatic and economic horizons, Netanyahu heads to Brazil

PM takes a six-day break from domestic politics in effort to forge new ties with Latin America’s biggest country, once considered a ‘diplomatic dwarf’

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

Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro smiles as he attends the Army cadets graduation ceremony at the Military Academy of Agulhas Negras in Resende, Brazil, December 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro smiles as he attends the Army cadets graduation ceremony at the Military Academy of Agulhas Negras in Resende, Brazil, December 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to take off to Brazil Thursday evening for a six-day trip focused on improving diplomatic and economic ties with Latin America’s largest country.

The main event of the trip — the first-ever to the country by an Israeli prime minister — will be the inauguration of Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro on January 1.

Netanyahu will also meet with other senior members of the Brazilian government, as well as leaders of the local Jewish community, before returning to Israel on January 2. He is also scheduled to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who will represent the administration at Bolsonaro’s 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.

“This visit will also bring important diplomatic news: a turnaround in Israel’s relations with the largest country in Latin America,” Netanyahu said Sunday during the weekly cabinet meeting. “Step by step, methodically and persistently, we are turning Israel into a rising global power.”

Calling his visit “historic,” the prime minister also stressed the vast economic opportunities that lie in closer ties with Brasilia.

“There are two ways to generate growth in the Israeli economy: One is to create new products and the other is to open new markets. 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.”

PM Netanyahu, left, meeting a delegation of eight Brazilian parliamentarians, November 2015 (GPO)

But the visit is also pregnant with diplomatic opportunity.

Bolsonaro, a strong supporter of Israel, has vowed to move his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to close the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia.

The president-elect appeared to briefly back off the pledge last month, but his son Eduardo Bolsonaro recently told Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of US President Donald Trump, that it was a matter of “when, not if.”

“This is a major change in foreign policy regarding relations with Israel,” said Giora Becher, a former Israeli ambassador to Brazil. “For many, many years, the official position of Brazil was always in favor at international forums of the Palestinian cause.”

Indeed, Bolsonaro has indicated that he would shift his country’s traditional pro-Palestinian stance in Israel’s favor. “Rest assured that you can depend on our vote in the UN on almost all the issues having to do with Israel,” he told an Israeli newspaper last month.

One harbinger of the promised change was Brazil’s support for a US-proposed United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Hamas on December 7, even before Bolsonaro formally took office.

This constitutes “a major change, because before, I remember talking to people in the Foreign Ministry of Brazil; I begged them, ‘Please at least once, don’t vote in favor [of anti-Israel resolutions], even abstain,’ and they refused,” said Becher. “So this is already a signal of the first change in the way Brazilian foreign policy is going, and I’m sure we will see a lot of that.”

Judging by Bolsonero’s large Evangelical voter base, Netanyahu will likely be as popular in Brazil as capoeira is in Israel

Eduardo Bolsonaro, a lawmaker himself, celebrated Brazil’s vote against Hamas as a “victory.”

“Brazil will no longer be a diplomatic dwarf,” he added, in a reference to a derogatory comment an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson directed at the country in 2014, after it criticized Israeli actions against Hamas in Gaza. President Reuven Rivlin later apologized for the slur, but diplomatic relations remained tense — until the October 28 election.

Supporters of 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)

“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,” said Leah Soibel, the founder and CEO of Fuenta Latina, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit seeking to improve ties between Latin America and the Jewish state.

“Brazil and Israel have a strong, strategic relationship. It is one of Israel’s top trading partners,” she noted. “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. The fact that he didn’t cancel it speaks volumes.”

Based on the incoming president’s public statements, he really might turn Brazil’s relations around in Israel’s favor, assessed Soibel, a US-born daughter of Argentinian parents.

“Under Bolsonaro’s leadership, Israel may find that Brazil eventually becomes its strongest ally in Latin America,” she said.

“Not only does Brazil have the largest Evangelical population in Latin America, but it is home to the second-largest Jewish community in the region. Judging by Bolsonero’s large Evangelical voter base, Netanyahu will likely be as popular in Brazil as capoeira is in Israel.”

One in five Brazilians is evangelical, she noted, which had a significant impact on the outcome of Brazilian elections, and their influence within the country in still on the rise.

The Arab and Muslim world has warned Bolsonaro that a possible move of the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem would negatively affect commercial ties, but Soibel argued that the new government in Brasilia can easily afford to dismiss those threats.

FILE — In this photo taken on September 21, 2018 faithful pray at an evangelical church in Brasilia for the recovery of Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who suffered a knife attack during a campaign rally (AFP PHOTO / EVARISTO SA)

“The Arab League also warned Guatemala that their cardamom trade with Arab countries would be at risk when President Jimmy Morales announced intentions to move his country’s embassy,” she said. “Brazil has one of the largest economies in the world. If Guatemala was able to withstand threats to their economy, Brazil should be able to as well.”

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 trade.

In 2010, Brazil was the first South American country to recognize a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders. Six years later, Brazil became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to open a Palestinian embassy, according to Soibel.

Netanyahu’s first stop will be Rio de Janeiro, where on Friday he will hold meetings with Bolsonaro, Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva and Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo.

On Friday evening, he will visit the Kehilat Yaakov synagogue in Rio’s Copacabana area.

On Sunday morning, he will host representatives of the Jewish community in his hotel, as well as a group of pro-Israel Christians.

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. He is also expected to meet Pompeo and the presidents of Chile and Honduras.

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