Israeli leaders on Monday welcomed the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a controversial hardliner, as new president of Brazil, hailing his bona fide pro-Israel credentials.
“I am certain that your election will lead to a great friendship between our nations and to a strengthening of Israel-Brazil ties,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Bolsonaro during a congratulatory phone call, according to a readout his office on Monday evening.
“Looking forward to your visit in Israel,” he added, referring to the far-right politician’s pledge to come to Israel on his foreign trip as president.
The first Israeli official to congratulate Bolsonaro was Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud). “Warm greetings to my friend Jair Bolsonaro for his election to the presidency of Brazil,” he said in a statement published Monday morning.
“Bolsonaro is a true friend of the State of Israel and during his visit to the Knesset two years ago, he told me a lot about his activities for us in Brazil. We look forward to your visit to Israel and wish you all the best.”
הגנרל לשעבר ז'איר בולסונרו נשיא ברזיל החדש, איש הימין הביס בבחירות את מועמד מפלגת הפועלים. יו״ר הכנסת @YuliEdelstein בירך: "ברכות חמות לידידי ז׳איר בולסונארו על בחירתו. ידיד אמת של שראל ובביקורו בכנסת לפני כשנתיים סיפר לי רבות על פעילותו למעננו בברזיל. אנו מחכים לביקורך בישראל״ pic.twitter.com/5tgSZCht1x
— Tal Schneider טל שניידר تال شنايدر (@talschneider) October 29, 2018
Economy Minister Eli Cohen (Kulanu) also welcomed Bolsonaro’s election and said he expected increased economic cooperation with Brasilia under the ardently pro-Israel leader.
In a statement extending his congratulations to the Brazilian president-elect, Cohen said Bolsonaro would “usher in a new era of political and economic ties with the largest country in South America.”
A declared friend of the Jewish state, Bolsonaro has said that he will move Brazil’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and that his first foreign trip will be to Israel.
A source close to the president-elect told Kan public radio that Bolsonaro still wants to move the embassy and that the issue will be considered. At the same time, the source added that the new government will investigate if such a move “would help advance the Middle East peace process.”
Brazil and the Arab world have close business ties and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy there could hurt trade, the source added.
“All these considerations will be taken into account as the [incoming] president will make a decision,” said.
Bolsonaro remains committed to making Israel one of his first destinations, the source added.
Onyx Lorenzoni, a politician close to the president-elect and lawmaker slated to be minister of housing under the new government, on Monday confirmed that Bolsonaro intends to include Israel on his first trip abroad, which will also take him to Chile and to the US.
However, the visit will not happen before December, when the newly elected leader will undergo surgery to remove a colostomy bag and repair his intestines after he was stabbed and seriously injured during a campaign rally last month.
Bolsonaro, who is sometimes compared to US President Donald Trump due to his undiplomatic style, has frequently disparaged women, gays, and blacks.
His victory moved Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy, sharply to the right, after four consecutive elections in which candidates from the left-leaning Workers’ Party won.
Trump personally invited Bolsonaro to visit the US during a phone call on Sunday and cited their “ideological alignment,” Lorenzoni said, according to local media reports.
The local Jewish community reacted diplomatically to Bolsonaro’s victory.
“Brazilians have elected a new president in free and fair elections. The election process has divided and polarized Brazilian society, including the very diverse Jewish community. Now is time to reunite our community, based on our Jewish and democratic values of justice and tolerance,” Fernando Lottenberg, the president of the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, told The Times of Israel.
“Mr. Bolsonaro has indicated he will be a strong supporter of Brazil-Israel relations, and we will work together on this goal,” he added.
During the presidential campaign, Bolsonaro signaled that he does not recognize Palestinian statehood and that he would close or downgrade the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic mission in Brasilia. “Is Palestine a country? Palestine is not a country, so there should be no embassy here,” he said in August.
“You don’t negotiate with terrorists,” he said, referring to the Palestinians.
Brazil recognized Palestine as an independent state in 2010. In the same year, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became the first Brazilian president to visit Israel.
Like other right-leaning leaders who have risen to power around the globe, Bolsonaro built his popularity on a mixture of tough talk and hardline positions. And, like many, he is sure to face stiff pushback from groups concerned that his strong views will lead to policies that threaten democratic institutions.
Bolsonaro spent much of the campaign exploiting divisions, taking to Twitter to lambaste the rival Workers’ Party as unethical and dangerous. In recent weeks, Brazilians were bombarded with WhatsApp messages that condemned Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad, often making outrageous claims.
Ultimately, Bolsonaro’s messages resonated with Brazilians hungry for change: He got just over 55 percent of the votes Sunday, compared to right under 45% for Haddad.
Amid the celebrations by Bolsonaro’s supporters, there were also reports of some clashes between his backers and opponents.
The rise of Bolsonaro, who cast himself as a political outsider despite a largely lackluster 27-year career in Congress, parallels the emergence of hard-right leaders in many countries. But his extreme messages were rendered more palatable by a perfect storm in Brazil: widespread anger at the political class after years of corruption, an economy that has struggled to recover from a punishing recession and a surge in violence.
In particular, many Brazilians were furious with the Workers’ Party for its role in the graft scheme revealed by the “Operation Car Wash” investigation, which uncovered billions of dollars in bribes paid to politicians via inflated construction contracts.
Bolsonaro’s candidacy raised serious concerns that he would roll back civil rights and weaken institutions in what remains a young democracy.
Within minutes of his victory being declared, international civil rights groups expressed concerns. Human Rights Watch called on Brazil’s judiciary and other institutions to “resist any attempt to undermine human rights, the rule of law and democracy under Jair Bolsonaro’s government.”
Bolsonaro has promised to crack down on violent crime and drastically reduce the size of Brazil’s state. But many of the details of his positions remain unclear since he has largely conducted his campaign via blasts on social media. After he was stabbed, he declined to debate Haddad and gave interviews only to largely friendly media that rarely asked tough questions.
Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.