RIO DE JANEIRO – When the traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks along the coast are over, Brazil will wake up Tuesday not just to a new year, but to a new era. Following years of left-wing governments that were brought to an end by corruption scandals, President-elect Jair Bolsonaro will be inaugurated. The country will officially join the global wave of far-right leaders.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also still both foreign minister and defense minister, this is a rare opportunity to forge a closer relationship with the regional superpower that has until now generally adopted pro-Palestinian and sometimes even pro-Iranian policies.
Israel is expected to offer information and procurement opportunities to assist Bolsonaro’s flagship project, domestic security, and hopes that in exchange he’ll keep his promise to move the Brazilian Embassy to Jerusalem soon.
On Thursday, Netanyahu and his wife Sara flew to Rio de Janeiro, where Netanyahu will meet with Bolsonaro and representatives of Brazil’s Jewish community. The couple will then fly to Brasilia for the inauguration and meetings with other guests, including the leaders of Chile and Honduras, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
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It’s no accident that Donald Trump’s America and Orban’s Hungary are joining Israel at this event. Many other leaders said the timing was inconvenient because of its proximity to the New Year’s holiday, but it’s no secret that many of them also see Bolsonaro as part of a global anti-liberal axis. Thus the West isn’t rushing to welcome him.
Bolsonaro, 63, is a controversial figure in Brazil, including among the Jewish community, parts of which are planning a protest Israel’s embrace of him. Until two years ago, he was considered politically irrelevant and his electoral victory was a surprise. It is seen as a reaction to the collapse of the former ruling party under its convicted leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Bolsonaro was born in Sao Paulo to parents of Italian extraction. He served in the Brazilian army and was elected to Rio’s city council, then to Congress.
He frequently lashes out at women, the gay community and minorities. In 2013 he said that “Brazilians don’t like gays.” Two years earlier he said 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 and supports torture. In 1999 he said that it would be impossible to change anything in Brazil just by voting, and that things would change only if 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.”
He recently sparked another storm when, following a phone call with Orban, he said that “Hungary is a country that has suffered a lot with communism in the past, a people that know what dictatorship is. The Brazilian people still do not know what dictatorship is.”
Given that more than 400 people were killed or disappeared and many more were tortured back when Brazil was ruled by a military junta, that comment outraged many Brazilians.
Bolsonaro shares Orban’s views on immigration. Last year thousands of Venezuelans fleeing their country’s economic and political crisis entered Brazil. Bolsonaro has promised to stop this.
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.
It’s no accident that in countries with large evangelical communities like the United States, Guatemala, the Philippines and now Brazil, there’s more talk about moving embassies to Jerusalem. But while Bolsonaro has promised to do so, a gap is developing – just as happened in Australia after its elections – between the promise and its fulfillment. Netanyahu will use his trip to the inauguration to push his own view.
Assistance with domestic security is the expected Israeli quid pro quo for the embassy move. Crime is a major problem in Brazil, and Bolsonaro has promised to solve it. In 2017 alone, tens of thousands of people were murdered in Brazil.
Bolsonaro’s sons Eduardo and Carlos were photographed during a visit to Israel in 2016 wearing Israeli army and Mossad shirts. On his Twitter account, Eduardo wrote that Israel is “a First-World country that admires its armed forces and police.” The elder Bolsonaro has promised to make Israel one of the first countries he visits as president.
Modi Ephraim, the deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Central and South America division, said the changing of the guard in Brazil is expected to provide Israel with significant opportunities, both economically and in international forums. Ephraim, who will accompany Netanyahu on his trip, said that under da Silva, Brazil cooperated closely with the Arab League and led many efforts to criticize Israeli policy at the United Nations.
Bolsonaro is likely to break this pattern, Ephraim said. But he wasn’t prepared to guarantee that the Brazilian leader would actually move the embassy to Jerusalem. The Foreign Ministry has already seen too many flip-flops on this issue.