Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at the Western Wall on April 1, 2019..
(photo credit: YONATAN ZINDEL/FLASH 90)
It is hard for Israelis to imagine the vastness of countries like Brazil, whose president Jair Bolsonaro arrived here for an official four-day visit on Sunday. The South American country spreads over some 8,514,877 sq.m. and has a population of approximately 210 million. Israel, with its almost nine million citizens, could fit into Brazil more than 400 times.
But it is not the country’s size alone that makes the visit of Brazil’s president important. As Bolsonaro said on his arrival: “Brazil is a giant and rich country; that is why our two countries are close – religiously, culturally and democratically.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the visit as “an amazing new start in Brazil-Israel relations” and noted that the two countries had signed a series of important agreements in the fields of defense, homeland security and cyber security, health, aviation, and science and technology – and were discussing more in fields including aquaculture and water management.
Marking the start of a new era, Netanyahu traveled to Brazil in January for Bolsonaro’s inauguration. This reciprocal visit is the Brazilian president’s first official trip outside of South America, a sign of the affection he undoubtedly feels, particularly as a religious Christian.
Bolsonaro is often compared to US President Donald Trump. There is no doubt that both hold similar conservative views and appeal to a fast growing sector of Evangelical voters. Bolsonaro’s Evangelical beliefs and support are noteworthy and a sign of the changes in what was once considered a Roman Catholic stronghold.
A former military man, Bolsonaro’s political rise was based on a platform promising salvation to Brazil’s poor – still suffering the effects of a serious economic recession – and on a pledge to fight corruption and the country’s high rates of violent crime and homicide.
Bolsonaro was accompanied by the largest Brazilian delegation of ministers, parliamentarians and business people to visit Israel. Their itinerary included places to showcase hi-tech innovations and entrepreneurship.
In January, Israel sent rescue teams and equipment to Brazil to help in the aftermath of the Brumadinho dam collapse disaster.
When Netanyahu visited Brazil, he was shown Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro where, the prime minister said, he “was extraordinarily impressed by the admiration and love of the Brazilian people for Israel: There is no other way to describe it.”
There is no doubt that a significant part of Bolsonaro’s visit was the time he spent in Jerusalem. Although he was widely expected to announce the move of Brazil’s embassy to the capital – a move that follows Trump’s relocation of the US Embassy last May – this did not materialize. Nonetheless, the president announced that Brazil would open a trade mission in Jerusalem.
“Brazil decided to create an office in Jerusalem to promote trade, investment, technology and innovation as a part of its embassy in Israel,” the Foreign Ministry in Brasilia said in a statement. The declaration was immediately condemned by the Palestinian Authority which, as The Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh noted, said it would recall its envoy from Brazil for consultations.
There’s no doubt that Netanyahu, exactly a week ahead of the election, would have preferred to have been able to boast of another embassy opening in Jerusalem yesterday. But Bolsonaro has reportedly come under pressure particularly in the agricultural sector, which fears that the embassy relocation could harm sales of halal meat to Arab countries. In addition, the Arab League warned that moving the embassy would have an adverse effect. In this light, Bolsonaro’s opening of the Jerusalem representative office is to be welcomed as a brave step in the right direction.
In another symbolic act, Bolsonaro visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Since Trump’s visit there, this has become an accepted stop for foreign dignitaries; Britain’s Prince William is among those who have been photographed touching the stones at the holy site.
Brazil is probably the most important country in South America and its influence there should not be underestimated.
“I love Israel,” Bolsonaro said in Hebrew upon landing and being met with full honors and red carpet treatment at Ben-Gurion Airport. It seems Israel has good reason to return the compliment.
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