Shortly after US President Donald Trump recognized Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights (see Providence’s “What You Should know about the Golan Heights”), Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro traveled to Israel for a four-day visit. The highlight of the trip was an agreement to open a trade office in Jerusalem, instead of moving the Brazilian embassy as the country’s new leader often pledged to do. It will be interesting to see how Brazilian evangelicals view the visit and whether we are witnessing a new era of close Tel Aviv-Brasilia relations.
The March 31–April 3 trip to Israel was President Bolsonaro’s fourth international trip since taking office in January—he previously visited Chile, Sweden, and the United States—a clear message of how high Israel ranks in his list of international allies. Even more, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Brazilian head of state have already met, as the Israeli leader went to the South American nation to attend the Brazilian president’s swearing-in ceremony back in January.
Apart from meeting with Netanyahu and other government officials, President Bolsonaro also reportedly met with representatives from Israeli companies, Brazilian expatriates who live in Raanana, and members of an Israeli search and rescue unit that was deployed to Brazil to help with rescue operations after the dam collapse in Minas Gerais state in January. President Bolsonaro also visited the Wailing Wall (with Netanyahu) and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center.
As for bilateral agreements, a joint declaration signed on March 31 between the two leaders has the predictable pledges of greater joint cooperation on issues like energy, technology, and Tel Aviv’s support for Brazil’s membership in the OECD. The document prominently notes Brasilia’s support for the establishment of the Israeli state and also states that “Brazil remembers that Jerusalem has been an inseparable part of the identity of the Jewish people for more than three thousand years, and it has become the political heart of the modern and thriving State of Israel.”
Bolsonaro’s pledge to move the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem makes sense when we analyze his personal opinions, political situation, and foreign policy objectives. His views were probably influenced by a pilgrimage he took some years ago to the River Jordan, where he was baptized by an evangelical pastor. Throughout his presidential campaign and after winning the election, President Bolsonaro maintained his pro-Israel stance. Even more, back in 2016, Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons and a congressman for São Paulo, tweeted a photo of himself and his brother Carlos wearing Mossad and IDF t-shirts, with a caption that reads “a first world country that supports its military and police forces.” In other words, this pro-Israel stance is not new. The president’s declarations, combined with those of his sons, earned him significant backing from Brazilian evangelicals during the October 2018 elections.
As for international influences, moving the embassy would have pleased President Donald Trump, who has kept a similar campaign pledge as an interim US embassy was inaugurated in Jerusalem in May 2018. President Bolsonaro is a well-known supporter of the US leader, and the two held an amicable meeting when Bolsonaro visited Washington in late March. The Israeli government is similarly interested in securing an alliance with Brazil, which explains Netanyahu‘s visit to Brazil earlier this year.
In spite of this momentum, rather than transferring the embassy, Brasilia will now open “a trade, technology, and innovation office, an official office of the Government of Brazil, in Jerusalem,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the new facilities. Nevertheless, the prime minister maintained a positive attitude, declaring that “I hope that this is a first step toward the opening in time of the Brazilian Embassy in Jerusalem,” according to the Jerusalem Post. Brazil still does not officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The president’s decision to open a new diplomatic office instead of moving the embassy has to do more with geopolitics than religion. Brazil has strong ties with the Arab world, which imports an “estimated $5 billion in sales of halal food that complies with Muslim dietary laws.” Hence, transferring the embassy to Jerusalem would have caused very negative repercussions for Brazilian exporters and cattle farmers, which would have hurt Bolsonaro’s support at home. Heavyweights of the Brazilian government such as the Vice President Hamilton Mourão have also declared that they are against this idea.
On the other hand, President Bolsonaro did receive significant support from Brazilian evangelicals during the presidential elections; hence, it will be interesting to monitor if not moving the embassy will hurt his support among evangelicals back home.
“I Love Israel”
This was the phrase that President Bolsonaro declared in Hebrew upon arriving there. His trip was regarded as the next step toward cementing a new “special relationship” between the two countries; however, it remains to be seen if this initiative will prosper as Israel will hold elections on April 9, which could mean the end of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rule.
The establishment of a Brazilian trade office of sorts in Jerusalem, rather than transferring the embassy, can be regarded as a sort of compromise between religious views, political interests, and geopolitical factors.
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
Photo Credit: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem on April 1, 2019. Photo by Alan Santos for Palácio do Planalto, via Flickr.