Netanyahu: Brazilian leader said embassy move a matter of ‘when, not if’

Netanyahu: Brazilian leader said embassy move a matter of ‘when, not if’

In Rio, PM tells local Jewish leaders that Jair Bolsonaro told him he’ll make good on his promise to relocate Brasilia’s mission from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, exit after a visit to the Kehilat Yaacov synagogue, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 28, 2018. (Leo Correa/Pool Photo via AP)
Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, exit after a visit to the Kehilat Yaacov synagogue, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 28, 2018. (Leo Correa/Pool Photo via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Brazilian Jewish leaders on Sunday that Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro informed him that he will relocate the Latin American country’s mission from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Mr Bolsonaro also said this: I will move the embassy to Jerusalem. It’s not a question of if, just a question of when,” Netanyahu said.

The statement came after Netanyahu and Bolsonaro met on Friday, and after an Israeli government source insisted Saturday that Brazil’s embassy move to Jerusalem was merely “a matter of time.”

“The situation is similar to [US President Donald] Trump’s declaration” that he planned to move the US embassy in December of 2017, the source said. “He declared it and he carried it out later on.” The US embassy move took place in May of 2018, six months after Trump stated his intention to do so.

Netanyahu had announced his trip to Brazil following a November 1 tweet from Bolsonaro indicating he intends to move the Brazilian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following in Trump’s footsteps. Bolsonaro later backtracked by saying “it hasn’t been decided yet.”

On Friday, Bolsonaro said he expects to visit Israel by March 2019, after accepting an invitation by Netanyahu.

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)

Netanyahu arrived in Brazil on Friday, accompanied by his wife Sara 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 who was elected in October on pledges to crack down on endemic crime and corruption.

“We will be starting a difficult government from January, but Brazil has potential,” Bolsonaro said Friday, indicating that his 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’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 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, where Netanyahu told congregants: “President Bolsonaro said that this is not just a friendship or an alliance of interests [between Brazil and Israel] but also an alliance of brothers… With cooperation and brotherhood it is possible to achieve things that cannot be imagined. We agreed between us on the way to take this cooperation to new heights.”

In Brazil, and in Bolsonaro, he said, “We now have a new friend who knows the hardships of history, the sources of our mutual culture and the great challenges that face us in ensuring the future… I am honored to tell you that very soon we will host the president of Brazil, a friend of Israel, Jair Bolsonaro, in Jerusalem. Next year in our rebuilt and united Jerusalem.”

Brothers in the future

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

But there was no mention of his post-election declaration of the embassy move during Friday’s press conference.

“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.”

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 Palestinian statehood. But Bolsonaro and Netanyahu have developed an increasingly warm relationship with similar views on security issues.

Netanyahu had told reporters on his flight to Brazil that “you can be certain I will speak with him about [the embassy] 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 insist Jerusalem’s status can only be resolved through negotiations and as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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