Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gave a tacit nod in the direction of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem – including in the Old City – when he visited the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s most holy sites, together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On Monday, he entered the history of the modern Jewish state by becoming the first sitting world leader to visit the Western Wall together with a sitting Israeli prime minister.
Netanyahu’s presence designates Israeli sovereignty over the area, which is deeply rooted in Jewish history but whose status in the eyes of the international community is fraught with controversy.
The geopolitics of an otherwise seemingly routine event for visitors to the Holy Land, a trip to the Western Wall is so subtle that it can be hard to notice.
For celebrities, it is a routine stop. From Liz Taylor to Madonna, from Justin Bieber to Justin Timberlake, they have gone to view the large stones that were part of the Second Temple’s outer wall over 2,000 years ago.
Popes have stood in reverence near it and politicians have posed in iconic shots; former US presidents also: Bill Clinton with a white skull cap on his head and Barack Obama placing a note in its crevices.
But neither Clinton nor Obama made the visit while in office – precisely because they feared the symbolic message they might send, even as they honored the biblical and religious significance of the ancient wall, which survived the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.
Jews might have prayed there for centuries, but the wall, like Jerusalem’s Old City, is outside the boundaries of the pre-1967 lines and is therefore part of east Jerusalem, which was held by Jordan for the first 19 years of Israel’s history.
The international community holds that east Jerusalem is “occupied territory” and should be part of the final boundaries of a Palestinian state. This includes the most holy sites in Judaism: the Temple Mount and the adjacent Western Wall. The Mount is also the third most holy site in Islam, known by the Arabic name Al-Haram Al-Sharif.
The international community has not recognized Israel’s 1980 annexation of east Jerusalem – nor in fact does it hold that Israel has sovereignty over west Jerusalem, which it has held since 1948.
International leaders have managed to visit west Jerusalem, while skipping over the sovereignty issue.
But an east Jerusalem visit with an Israeli leader is thornier because of the statement it appears to make regarding the status of a Palestinian state.
Even Timberlake, a musician and not a diplomat, got into trouble on instagram in 2014, by posting a photograph of himself at the Western Wall with the hashtag #Israel.
US President Donald Trump broke that taboo in 2017 when he visited the Western Wall
. But even he was diplomatically circumspect in the way he did it, with an attempt to appear neutral by standing there without any Israeli officials. Instead, he was accompanied by a religious leader, the Rabbi of the Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and his staff.
Other international dignitaries have since followed Trump’s lead by heading to the Western Wall with Rabinowitz, including Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz
and British Royal Prince William
Last May, the US relocated its embassy to west Jerusalem
, a move that recognized Israeli sovereignty over that section of the city. Washington has insisted that the move does not prejudice its opinion about the future borders of the city, including the possibility that east Jerusalem would be the future capital of a Palestinian state. Only Guatemala has followed in America’s footsteps
by opening a Jerusalem embassy.
Last month, the US took another dramatic step, when Netanyahu joined US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for a visit to the Western Wall. In the aftermath of the embassy move, the small statement it appeared to signal on Jerusalem went almost unnoticed.
Netanyahu had hoped that during his four-day trip to Israel, Bolsonaro would announce that Brazil would become the third country to relocate its embassy.
The Brazilian right-wing leader, who has spoken passionately of the Judeo-Christian roots that bind both countries, is a passionate supporter of Israel. He is bolstered in his love for Israel by the Evangelicals in his country who want him to take a strong stand on Jerusalem. But the agriculture industry fears the impact of the Muslim reaction on its halal meat industry.
In the end, Bolsonaro chose the middle path, announcing the opening of a trade office, which many see as the first step to a future embassy move.
But he added a visual image to mark his commitment to Jerusalem – one that will play well for him at home and will help Netanyahu bolster his diplomatic credentials in advance of the April 9 election.
On Monday afternoon, Bolsonaro didn’t just brave the rain, he also risked international backlash and stood together with Netanyahu at the Western Wall.
The two men placed their hands on its stones for a moment and then listened to Rabinowitz recite a prayer about the peace of Jerusalem.
The city of “Jerusalem is united, and we should keep it united,” Netanyahu said.
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