Netanyahu to visit Rio, Brasilia in unprecedented trip to Brazil

PM will attend inauguration of new president Bolsonaro; local Jews hail ‘promising signs in the bilateral relationship’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Jair Bolsonaro gestures to supporters during the second round of the presidential elections, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 28, 2018. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP)
Jair Bolsonaro gestures to supporters during the second round of the presidential elections, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 28, 2018. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will travel to Brazil later this month to attend the inauguration of incoming President Jair Bolsonaro, his office confirmed Monday.

During his five-day trip — the first-ever to the Latin American country by an Israeli prime minister — he is also expected to meet with the local Jewish leaders.

Netanyahu will head to Rio on December 27, where he will conduct a first bilateral meeting with Bolsonaro and meet representatives of the Jewish community. On Monday, December 31, the prime minister will fly to the capital, Brasilia, for the events surrounding the president’s inauguration the next day.

He is scheduled to attend ceremonies at the Presidential Palace, the Foreign Ministry Palace, and at the National Congress.

Speaking to his Likud faction in the Knesset on Monday, Netanyahu predicted that the Israeli press would ignore his trip to Brazil. “I will meet there with the president-elect of Brazil, who said that he will carry out a revolution in Brazil’s relations with Israel,” he said.

“It’s not just another country — even though every country is important — it’s a country with nearly a quarter of a billion people, a superpower. And they’re changing their relations with Israel from one extreme to the other, including on the issue of Jerusalem,” he added.

Netanyahu was referring to Bolsonaro’s pledge to defy international consensus and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move his country’s embassy there.

Brazil’s Jewish community welcomed news of Netanyahu’s visit and the prospect of warming ties.

“The Brazilian Jewish community sees promising signs in the bilateral relationship between Brazil and Israel in the next years,” Fernando Lottenberg, the president of the Israelite Confederation of Brazil, told The Times of Israel on Monday.

“There is an agenda very rich in opportunities, on which we have been working during the last years that may take a new dimension, in areas like technology, culture, security, agriculture and others,” Lottenberg said.

“The prime minister’s coming to the inauguration is a good sign, following on the meeting in Jerusalem last March, when the current foreign minister, Mr. Aloysio Nunes, visited Israel and invited us to join his entourage.”

Netanyahu first confirmed his plan to attend the inauguration of Bolsonaro — a controversial right-wing political figure known for his tough talk — last week during a meeting with foreign reporters in Jerusalem.

Asked by a Brazilian reporters what he thinks of Latin America’s recent shift to the right, he replied: “Our concern is not the domestic decisions, the political decisions, but what is their relationship to us? I was very glad to hear that Mr. Bolsonaro thinks that we should upgrade and change Brazil’s attitude to Israel.”

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro delivers gestures during a ceremony in which he received a diploma that certifies he can take office as president from Electoral Supreme Court (TSE) president Justice Rosa Weber, at the TSE in Brasilia, on December 10, 2018. (EVARISTO SA / AFP)

Brazil is a “great country” with “great enormous economic potential,” Netanyahu added.

Besides pledging to move the Brazilian Embassy to Jerusalem, Bolsonaro has also vowed to close the Palestinian mission in Brasilia.

The planned embassy move has drawn wide praise from Israel and its supporters, and condemnation from the Arab world.

Arab League head Ahmed Aboul Gheit warned Bolsonaro to reconsider the move, according to Reuters.

“The Arab world has much respect for Brazil and we want not just to maintain relations, but improve and diversify them. But the intention of moving the embassy to Jerusalem could harm them,” an unnamed diplomat told the news agency, describing the Arab league’s position.

Diplomats from the Arab League’s 22 member states plan to huddle Tuesday in Brasilia to discuss the embassy move, according to Reuters.

Bolsonaro announced he would move the embassy shortly after he was elected in late October.

“Israel is a sovereign state and we shall duly respect that,” he tweeted at the time.

Supporters of far-right lawmaker and presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro, celebrate in Rio de Janeiro, after the former army captain won Brazil’s presidential election, on October 28, 2018. (CARL DE SOUZA / AFP)

Netanyahu hailed the decision as “historic,” but Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi condemned it as “illegal.”

“These are provocative and illegal steps that will only destabilize security and stability in the region,” Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, told AFP in November.

The Organization of Islamic Countries has also urged Brazil not to move the embassy.

In September, the organization’s executive committee, meeting in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, reiterated “its determination to take political, economic and other measures against countries which recognize Al-Quds as the so-called capital of Israel or relocate their embassies thereto.”

Brazil is among the largest exporters of halal meat to the Arab world, and exporters have lobbied Bolsonaro to not move the embassy and risk trade, according to Reuters.

The president-elect appeared to briefly back off the pledge last month, but his son Eduardo Bolsonaro recently told Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of US President Donald Trump, that it was a matter of “when, not if.”

Only the United States and Guatemala currently have their embassies in Jerusalem, while other countries have theirs in Tel Aviv.

View of the US Embassy in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, May 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it, in a move never recognized by the international community. It sees the entire city as its capital.

For decades, the international community maintained that the city’s status should be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.

The embassy move squarely aligns Bolsonaro with the US president, and bolsters his image as the “Tropical Trump.”

In December 2017, Trump reversed longstanding policy and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, prompting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to boycott his administration.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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