Two leaders attend Shabbat eve services at Rio synagogue

Hailing ‘brotherhood,’ Brazil’s president-elect says he’ll visit Israel by March

Bolsonaro accepts Netanyahu’s invitation, issued during their first meeting in Rio; no mention of possible Jerusalem embassy move

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)
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)

RIO DE JANIERO — Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro said Friday he expects to visit Israel by March 2019, after accepting an invitation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is currently on a state trip to Brazil.

“We will be starting a difficult government from January, but Brazil has potential,” Bolsonaro said, indicating that the Israel visit would come, in part, to reciprocate Netanyahu’s trip to Brazil. “So that we can overcome obstacles, we need good allies, good friends, good brothers, like Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Netanyahu arrived in Brazil on Friday, accompanied by his wife Sarah and son Yair, and the family is set to stay on through Tuesday to join other foreign dignitaries at the inauguration in Brasilia of Bolsonaro, a far-right, security-conscious politician and former army officer elected in October on pledges to crack down on endemic crime and corruption.

Netanyahu’s is the first-ever visit by an Israeli prime minister to Brazil.

Following a private meeting Friday in a century-old military fort on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach, the two issued the warm words to the media, hailing a nascent “brotherhood” between their countries that will boost economic, military, and technological cooperation.

They then visited a local synagogue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro give a press conference after holding a meeting at the Copacabana fort in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 28, 2018. (Photo by Leo CORREA / POOL / AFP)

Bolsonaro, sometimes called the “Trump of the tropics” for a similar style to US President Donald Trump and rejection of multilateral diplomacy, emphasized the bond he wants to build with Netanyahu, a firm US ally.

“More than partners, we will be brothers in the future, in economy, technology, all that can bring benefit to our two countries,” Bolsonaro said. He also spoke of cooperation in military and agriculture matters.

Netanyahu, calling his visit “historic,” also spoke of “the brotherhood, the alliance” the two planned as something that “can carry us to great heights.”

“Through our mutual cooperation, enormous benefits will be created for our two peoples,” Netanyahu said. “It’s hard to believe that we had no such contacts before,” he added.

Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro delivers a speech at a synagogue in Copacabana neighborhood, Rio de Janeiro, during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Brazil, on December 28, 2018. (Photo by Leo CORREA / POOL / AFP)

Brazil and Israel have previously had cordial but strained relations.

The leftist Workers Party, which had dominated Brazilian politics for 13 years before Bolsonaro’s election, often showed support for the Palestinian independence movement. But Bolsonaro and Netanyahu have developed an increasingly warm relationship with similar views on security issues.

Netanyahu announced his trip to Brazil following a November 1 tweet from Bolsonaro indicating he intends to move the Brazilian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following in Trump’s footsteps. He later walked it back.

Embassy move

There was no mention of Bolsonaro’s post-election declaration on Friday.

Netanyahu had told reporters on his flight to Brazil that “you can be certain I will speak with him about that in our first meeting.” But neither man raised the topic in their comments to media, and no questions were taken.

An embassy move could put at risk lucrative Brazilian poultry and halal meat exports to Arab countries, which fiercely oppose any unilateral moves seen as cementing Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem as its capital.

The Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and most countries in the world back a longstanding consensus that Jerusalem’s status can only be resolved through negotiations and as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

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)

Nearly 20 percent of Brazil’s $5 billion beef exports go to 17 Arab countries.

Brazil-Israel trade currently amounts to $1.2 billion.

In preparation for his tenure as president, Bolsonaro has sent aides to Israel to study desalination technology and to investigate the potential purchase of drones for use by Brazilian security forces.

Rightward shift

Bolsonaro’s ascent to the presidency represents a dramatic, rightward shift in Brazil’s politics.

For decades, the country has been under center-left and center-right rule and resolutely sought to carve out foreign policy independent of the United States. In 2010 the country recognized a Palestinian state, and it nurtured trade and investment relations with China.

But Bolsonaro has spoken with hostility of China’s investments in Brazil, and he and one of his politician sons have reached out to Trump and people in his orbit.

He and his team have also excluded the far-left leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua from attending the inauguration in Brasilia, although Bolivia’s left-wing President Evo Morales received an invitation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) is welcomed by Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro at the Copacabana fort in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 28, 2018. (Photo by Leo CORREA / POOL / AFP)

Other VIPs attending include conservative Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Meeting Pompeo

Netanyahu made his Brazil trip despite domestic political turmoil in Israel and a spike in military volatility in neighboring Syria.

Pompeo and Netanyahu are to discuss Syria on the sidelines of Bolsonaro’s swearing-in, an Israeli official and the US State Department said.

US allies including Israel were caught by surprise by Trump’s abrupt announcement last week that he was pulling US troops out of Syria, where Israel’s arch-foe Iran has built up a significant military and political presence.

Israel has made several aerial strikes in Syria against positions held by Iran and its Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

Domestically, Netanyahu is maneuvering to extend his reign in Israel despite a slew of corruption allegations. On Wednesday, Israel’s parliament approved a government decision to call early elections for April 9.

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