Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to attend the inauguration of Brazil’s controversial president-elect Jair Bolsonaro.
Netanyahu will in “great likelihood” fly to Brasilia for the January 1, 2019, event, his spokesperson Shir Cohen told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. If his travel plans materialize, he would become the first Israeli leader the visit the country, the largest in South America.
Bolsonaro, a far-right hardliner who has been criticized for his derogatory statements about women, gays and blacks, is an avid supporter of Israel. During the election campaign, he vowed to move his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to include the Jewish state on his first trip abroad as president.
“I am certain that your election will lead to a great friendship between our peoples and the tightening of links between Brazil and Israel. We await your visit to Israel,” Netanyahu told Bolsonaro on Monday during a congratulatory phone call, according to a readout from his office.
“Looking forward to your visit in Israel,” he added.
“Our friendship ties will undoubtedly result in mutual agreements that will surely benefit both of our nations and citizens,” Bolsonaro tweeted later, saying he had just “received incredible words” from Netanyahu.
I’ve just received incredible words from the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu as well as from ambassador Yossi Shelley. Our friendship ties will undoubtedly result in mutual agreements that will surely benefit both of our nations and citizens. ????????????????
— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) October 29, 2018
Netanyahu’s plan to attend Bolsonaro’s inauguration was first reported by Folha de S.A Paulo newspaper, which said the prime minister had told the president-elect about his intention during their phone call.
The two men had only met once before, during a trip by Bolsonaro to Israel two years ago when he was an MP, but it was possible to feel the “warmth” and openness in their conversation, Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, Yossi Shelly, told the paper.
Relations between Jerusalem and Brasilia are likely to improve dramatically, Shelly went on, but said it was too early to say whether Bolsonaro will actually move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem.
Citing his pro-Israel positions, Israeli officials welcomed Bolsonaro’s election earlier this week.
“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,” Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said. “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 congratulating 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 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.
Onyx Lorenzoni, a politician close to the president-elect who is 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 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.
His 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.”
Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.