Joined by Netanyahu, Brazilian president makes trailblazing trip to Western Wall
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Joined by Netanyahu, Brazilian president makes trailblazing trip to Western Wall

Braving Jerusalem rain, Bolsonaro becomes first foreign head of state to be accompanied by Israeli PM on visit to the holy site

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

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touch the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in the Old City of  Jerusalem on April 1, 2019 (Menahem KAHANA / POOL / AFP)
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touch the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 1, 2019 (Menahem KAHANA / POOL / AFP)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was joined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall on Monday, becoming the first foreign head of state to visit the site together with a senior Israeli official.

His unprecedented step could be seen as a tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty over that location in Jerusalem’s Old City, which the international community generally considers occupied Palestinian territory. The Western Wall, part of the retaining walls of the Second Temple, is the holiest place where Jews can pray.

After Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch read a chapter from the Book of Psalms, Netanyahu and Bolsonaro approached the wall, braving the rainy Jerusalem weather.

After the Brazilian president placed a note in one of the cracks, the two leaders leaned against the ancient stones for several seconds in quiet contemplation.

After the short ceremony, they toured the Western Wall tunnels, which are located underneath the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro visits the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem’s Old City with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 1, 2019 (Amos Ben-Gershom / GPO)

At a visitors center, the two men viewed a virtual reality recreation of the Jewish temple that once stood on the Temple Mount.

During his election campaign, and even in the weeks that followed his victory, Bolsonaro promised to follow US President Donald Trump’s lead in transferring his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. But before he arrived in Israel on Sunday morning, he appeared to backtrack, indicating that he would open a trade mission in the city instead.

Meeting Netanyahu on Sunday, Bolsonaro announced the opening of a “trade, technology and innovation office” that would be “an official office of the Government of Brazil, in Jerusalem,” the prime minister said.

“I hope that this is a first step toward the opening in time of the Brazilian embassy in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said on Sunday evening during a joint press appearance at the Prime Minister’s Residence on the capital’s Balfour Street.

“Recognizing the historic ties of Jerusalem with the Jewish identity and that the city is the political heart of the State of Israel, I announced today that Brazil will open there a Brazilian office to promote trade, investment and exchange in innovation and technology,” Bolsonaro tweeted later that night.

So far, the US and Guatemala are the only countries to have their embassies in Jerusalem. Paraguay moved its embassy to the city last year, but has since relocated it to Tel Aviv.

Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă on March 24 announced that her country would move its embassy to Jerusalem, but an actual relocation seems unlikely because President Klaus Iohannis — who is staunchly opposed to the move — has the last word on the matter.

On the same day, Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández announced his intention to “immediately” open a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem that would “extend our embassy to the capital of Israel, Jerusalem.”

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.

The international community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, and so visiting foreign dignitaries generally refrain from going there in the company of Israeli officials.

Those who do want to tour the holy site usually do so in a private capacity, though in recent months an increasing number of foreign leaders have defied standard protocol and allowed Israeli diplomats to join them at the wall.

On March 20, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first American top diplomat to visit the site together with an Israeli prime minister, underlining the recent trend.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 21, 2019, during the second day of Pompeo’s visit as part of his five-day regional tour of the Middle East. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
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