Netanyahu and Bolsonaro play up 'brotherhood' but avoid embassy talk

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro on Friday announced a nascent "brotherhood" between their countries, though there was no word on plans to move Brazil's embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Lea Correa, AFP | Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) is welcomed by Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro at the Copacabana fort in Rio de Janeiro on December 28, 2018.

The two issued the warm words to the media after a meeting in a century-old military fort on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach, at the beginning of the first-ever visit by an Israeli prime minister to Brazil.

Netanyahu said Bolsonaro had accepted an invitation to make his own visit to Israel, without giving a date.

The Israeli leader is to stay on through Tuesday to join other foreign dignitaries at the inauguration in Brasilia of Bolsonaro, a far-right, security-minded politician and former army officer elected in October on pledges to crack down on endemic crime and corruption.

Bolsonaro, sometimes called the "Trump of the tropics" for a similar style to US President Donald Trump and rejection of multilateral diplomacy, emphasized the bond he wants to build with Netanyahu, a firm US ally.

"More than partners, we will be brothers in the future, in economy, technology, all that can bring benefit to our two countries," Bolsonaro said. He also spoke of cooperation in military and agriculture matters.

Netanyahu, calling his visit "historic," also spoke of "the brotherhood, the alliance" the two planned as something that "can carry us to great heights."

"It's hard to believe that we had no such contacts before," he said.

Embassy move

However there was no mention of Bolsonaro's post-election declaration -- later walked back -- that he intended to follow Trump in moving his country's embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Netanyahu had told reporters on his flight to Brazil that "you can be certain I will speak with him about that in our first meeting." But neither man raised the topic in their comments to media, and no questions were taken.

An embassy move could put at risk lucrative Brazilian poultry and halal meat exports to Arab countries, which fiercely oppose any unilateral steps seen as cementing Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem as its capital.

The Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and most countries in the world back a longstanding consensus that Jerusalem's status can only be resolved through negotiations and as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Nearly 20 percent of Brazil's $5 billion beef exports go to 17 Arab countries.

Brazil-Israel trade currently amounts to $1.2 billion. Bolsonaro said Tuesday he is looking to import Israeli technology to produce water for Brazil's parched northeast.

Rightward shift

Bolsonaro's ascent to the presidency represents a dramatic, rightward shift in Brazil's politics.

For decades, the country has been under center-left and center-right rule and resolutely sought to carve out foreign policy independent of the United States. In 2010, the country recognized a Palestinian state, and it nurtured trade and investment relations with China.

But Bolsonaro has spoken with hostility of China's investments in Brazil, and he and one of his politician sons have reached out to Trump and people in his orbit.

Read more: ‘Tropical Trump’ Bolsonaro threatens to upend Brazil’s foreign policy

He and his team have also excluded the far-left leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from attending the inauguration in Brasilia, although Bolivia's leftwing President Evo Morales received an invitation.

Other VIPs attending include conservative Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, Hungary's far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Bolsonaro later Friday attended a Rio synagogue with Netanyahu and told the congregation that Brazil intended to move forward in the world not only with Israel "but with other countries such as the United States that think and have a similar ideology to our own."

Meeting Pompeo

Netanyahu made his Brazil trip despite domestic political turmoil in Israel and a spike in military volatility in neighboring Syria.

Pompeo and Netanyahu are to discuss Syria on the sidelines of Bolsonaro's swearing-in, an Israeli official and the US State Department said.

US allies including Israel were caught by surprise by Trump's abrupt announcement last week that he was pulling US troops out of Syria, where Israel's arch-foe Iran has built up a significant military and political presence.

Israel has made several aerial strikes in Syria against positions held by Iran and its Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

Domestically, Netanyahu is maneuvering to extend his reign in Israel despite a slew of corruption allegations. On Wednesday, Israel's parliament approved a government decision to call early elections for April 9.

The Israeli prime minister also serves as his country's foreign minister. Last year he visited Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.


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