Brazil’s Bolsonaro to walk diplomatic tightrope in Israel

Brazil's Bolsonaro to walk diplomatic tightrope in Israel
AFP

Brasília (AFP) – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro arrives in Israel Sunday, where he will walk a diplomatic tightrope as he seeks to shore up ties with his right-wing counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu while keeping key Arab trade partners onside.

Bolsonaro’s controversial pledge to move Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem is expected to be high on the agenda during the three-day visit as Netanyahu uses the occasion to boost his standing ahead of April 9 elections.

The Brazilian ex-army captain’s trip comes after his recent visits to the United States and Chile, as part of efforts to build ties with conservative governments around the world.

Neither Brazil nor Israel has released details of the visit, but Bolsonaro is expected to focus on correcting their lopsided trade relationship by boosting Brazilian exports, mainly soybeans and meat.

He is also expected to seek greater access to Israeli defense technology.

In 2018, Brazil’s exports to Israel were worth $321 million dollars, while imports, including fertilizers and chemical products, stood at $1.17 billion, official data shows. 

But the issue of relocating Brazil’s embassy will likely dominate the visit, testing the tough-talking Bolsonaro’s diplomatic skills. 

Months after promising the shift, which sparked an angry response from Palestinian leaders, Bolsonaro has yet to announce a timetable.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Bolsonaro suggested he was in no hurry to make a decision. 

“Trump took nine months to decide, to give his final word, so that the embassy was transferred,” Bolsonaro said.

“Perhaps now we will open a commercial office in Jerusalem.”

– Risky move –

While moving the embassy would please Bolsonaro’s evangelical Christian support base, it would run the risk of provoking commercial retaliation from Arab states, some of which are major importers of Brazilian meat.

The issue has “a very important symbolic weight,” said Paulo Kramer, a professor at the University of Brasilia. 

“If he doesn’t announce it on the trip, it will frustrate his voters’ expectations and upset evangelical groups,” federal lawmaker Marcos Pereira, who is also president of a parliamentary Brazil-Israel friendship group, told AFP. 

The decision to move the embassy is highly sensitive because Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, while Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Virtually all countries agree that Jerusalem’s status can only be defined through wider Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

So far, only the United States and Guatemala have broken with that consensus by opening embassies in Jerusalem. Paraguay backtracked on a decision last year to move its embassy. Israel and the US have spoken with Honduras about its embassy going to Jerusalem.

“Moving the embassy of any country… is a violation of international law and an attack on the Palestinian people,” the Palestinian envoy to Brazil, Ibrahim Alzeben, told AFP this week.

For Netanyahu, who faces a strong challenge from former military chief Benny Gantz in next month’s election, Bolsonaro’s visit will help him demonstrate that “he has friends around the world,” Raphael Eldad, Israeli ambassador to Brazil from 2011 to 2014, told AFP.

“In the international context, Israel cannot ignore friends.”

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