Netanyahu Welcomes Brazil's Bolsonaro to Israel, Days Before Election

Prime minister hopes Bolsonaro will show willingness to move his embassy to Jerusalem during the four-day visit, which will also include the signing of bilateral agreements

Netanyahu and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during the latter's welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport, March 31, 2019
Chaim Tzach / GPO

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro arrived in Israel on Sunday for a four-day visit, just days before Israel’s April 9 election, following up on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's December visit to Brazil for the far-right leader's inauguration. 

Netanyahu sees the rise to power of the radical, conservative Brazilian president as a chance to bolster relations with a world power that, until now, has been pro-Palestinian, and at times pro-Iranian.

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"My friend, the president, we're making history together," Netanyahu said during Bolsonaro's welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport, promising the two would sign several bilateral agreements, including ones on matters of security.

"Brazil is a huge country with huge potential. I believe that under your leadership that potential would be fulfilled," he said. "You've arrived in Israel at a tense time, that is why I instructed to leave Israeli army forces, including tanks, and if we're called for it we'll engage in a campaign for the security of Israel."

LGBTQ activists put up a sign on the exit from the airport in Portuguese saying "the Holy Land doesn't want homophobes here," referring to Bolsonaro's incendiary comments in the past on homosexuals.

LGBT activists holding up a sign in Portuguese that reads "The Holy Land doesn't want homophobes here" near the exit from Ben-Gurion International Airport, March 31, 2019
The Aguda - Israel's LGBT Task Force

The Israeli government hopes that Bolsonaro will move his country's embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, although he has said he is only  considering opening a "business office there." In exchange, Israeli technology would be expected to assist Bolsonaro’s flagship project, domestic security.

Bolsonaro landed at Ben-Gurion Airport shortly before 10 A.M. and is slated to meet with Netanyahu to sign bilateral agreements later on Sunday. They will give a joint press conference in the evening and have dinner at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

Bolsonaro will visit Yad Vashem and plant a tree at the Grove of Nations. Later he will visit troops of the Home Front Command to thank an Israeli  rescue force that was recently sent to Brazil.

He's expected to meet with representatives of the Brazilian community in Israel and take part in a business forum in Jerusalem. He will also join Netanyahu at an innovation exhibition and visit the offices of leading companies.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at Ben-Gurion International Airport, March 31, 2019
Chaim Tzach / GPO

During the four-day trip, President Reuven Rivlin will be on an official visit to Canada. On Sunday, left-wing activists plan to protest Bolsonaro’s visit.

At the end of December, Netanyahu was one of the few Western leaders to attend the Brazilian's inauguration, along with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban.

When the two leaders met, the embassy move was discussed but no time frame was set, and after the meeting Bolsonaro did not mention the issue, and on Thursday made the remark about setting up an office there.

This is similar to the actions of other leaders who said they would move their country’s embassy and later backtracked.

Since the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem nearly a year ago, only Guatemala has done the same; Paraguay transferred its embassy and then reversed the move.

The European Union unanimously opposes moving embassies to Jerusalem. Hungary opened a trade office in the city and the Czech Republic opened a cultural center, while in Romania the president and prime minister are battling over the issue.

Honduras, which Israel helped via mediation efforts with the United States, recently announced that it will open a trade office in Jerusalem. Australia, whose prime minister is an evangelical Christian, announced the opening of a defense and trade office in the city and recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Philippines has voiced similar intentions but has not yet changed policy.

FILE PHOTO: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is welcomed by Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro at the Copacabana fort in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 28, 2018.
\ POOL/ REUTERS

Following his meeting with Netanyahu in December, Bolsonaro announced his intention to visit Israel to advance cooperation between the two countries, especially on security and technology. Brazil's high crime rate was a key issue in Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign – tens of thousands of people were murdered in the country in 2017 alone.

During Netanyahu’s visit to Brazil, a political source told Haaretz that Israeli officials and Bolsonaro discussed the sale of advanced drones to Brazil, including for police use. Brazil’s murder rate is 30 times that of Israel’s, the source noted.

The source told reporters that some of the drones discussed are equipped with facial-recognition technology, which is linked to a large database to be used to pursue suspects.

In 2013, the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan found that Israel is the world's largest exporter of drones. According to the study, which examined the number of systems sold, Israel sold drones to various countries for more than $4.6 billion over the eight years preceding the report.

It said nearly 10 percent of Israel’s security exports consist of various types of drones, though not all drone exports are intended for military use, with some equipment reportedly sold for domestic security and use in cities.

Israeli companies – largely Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit Systems – have sold drones to various countries. During Israel’s official weapons show abroad, foreign customers were presented with a model of the IAI Harpy, a self-destructing drone. In 2018, it was revealed that India has authorized the acquisition of dozens of IAI Heron drones.

During a visit to Israel in 2016, Bolsonaro’s sons Eduardo and Carlos were photographed wearing Israeli army and Mossad shirts. On Twitter, Eduardo praised Israel for appreciating its army and police.

The elder Bolsonaro, 64, is a controversial figure in Brazil and particularly in the Jewish community. His election victory came as a surprise and was seen as a reaction to the collapse of the ruling party under former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who has been imprisoned for corruption.

Bolsonaro was born in Sao Paolo to Italian parents, served in the Brazilian army and was elected to Rio’s city council and later to Congress. He frequently lashes out at women, the LGBT community and minorities.

Bolsonaro said in 2013 that “Brazilians don’t like gays.” Two years earlier he remarked that if his son were gay, he would no longer be able to love him, adding: “I’d rather my son die in an accident than show up with some guy with a mustache.” In 2002 he said that if he saw two men kissing in the street, he’d slap them.

Bolsonaro often speaks nostalgically about Brazil’s former military dictatorship. In 1999 he said that it would be impossible to change anything in Brazil just by voting, and that things would change only if a civil war broke out and the army intervened. “If a few innocents die, that’s okay,” he added.

At a campaign rally in Sao Paulo, he said he would jail his political opponents. “This group, if they want to stay, will have to obey our laws,” he said, adding that “either they stay abroad or they’ll go to jail.”

In both Washington and Jerusalem, officials believe the Bolsonaro era will create new opportunities, especially economic ones, between Brazil and the world and weaken the traditional alliance of the so-called BRICS states – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This alliance among the major developing economies has sought to undermine the old world order and challenge the United States.

Bolsonaro has denounced his country’s ties with China and Cuba, and he and his sons have openly evinced a fondness for Trump. The two leaders share a worldview, language and style on many issues.

They also have a common denominator that affects their attitude toward Israel – a strong base of evangelical Christian supporters. Both countries have large, growing and politically active evangelical communities. Evangelical support for Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem is part of a religious worldview that views this sovereignty as hastening the “end of days” and the second coming of Jesus.

In countries with large evangelical communities like the United States, Guatemala, the Philippines and Brazil, there is more talk about moving embassies to Jerusalem.

Regarding Bolsonaro's extreme opinions toward women, the LGBT community and military dictatorship, a senior official told reporters at the time of Netanyahu’s visit to Brazil that “Netanyahu has his own positions and no one can diminish them, both regarding women and regarding gays.” However, the source said, “we do not have the privilege of hunkering down in our fortress of purity.”

File Photo: The Israeli-made Eitan drone.
Olivier Fitoussi