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Bolsonaro shores up ties with Netanyahu ahead of Israeli elections

Jack Guez, AFP |Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) shakes hands with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro upon the latter's arrival at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport on March 31, 2019 in his first state visit to Israel.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro arrived in Israel just ahead of the country’s Sunday election, in which his right-wing ally Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a tough re-election fight.

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Bolsonaro was welcomed by Netanyahu on Sunday and there was an official ceremony at the airport near Tel Aviv.

“We are making history together,” Netanyahu said, adding that they had “opened a new era in relations between our two countries.”

“My government is firmly resolved to strengthen the partnership between Brazil and Israel,” Bolsonaro said. “Cooperation in the areas of security and defence is also of great interest to Brazil."

Israel’s energy minister said on Sunday that Brazilian state-run oil firm Petrobras would take part in a tender to explore for oil and gas off Israel’s shore.

“It was agreed that Petrobras ... will take part in a process of oil and gas exploration in Israel,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio as Bolsonaro began his visit to Israel.

Bolsonaro will walk a diplomatic tightrope during the three-day visit, as he seeks to shore up ties with Netanyahu while avoiding angering key Arab trade partners.

Bolsonaro’s controversial pledge to move Brazil’s embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem is expected to be high on the agenda, as Netanyahu uses the occasion to boost his standing ahead of April 9 elections.

Months after promising the step already taken by US President Donald Trump - leading the Palestinians to freeze ties with the White House - Bolsonaro has yet to set a timetable.

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.

Earlier this week, Bolsonaro suggested that he was in no hurry to make a decision. But on Sunday, Brazil’s foreign ministry announced that it had opened a new diplomatic office in Jerusalem that would serve as part of its embassy, which is located in Tel Aviv.

Western wall visit

Bolsonaro is expected to visit Jerusalem’s Western Wall alongside Netanyahu on Monday - a controversial move in itself.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first high-ranking American official to visit the Western Wall, located in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, with an Israeli premier.

It could be taken as tacit approval of Israel’s sovereignty over the site, one of the holiest in Judaism and located in the city’s mainly Palestinian eastern sector.

The compound above the wall is known to Jews as the Temple Mount - the holiest in Judaism - and also contains the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.

Later Sunday, Netanyahu will meet with Bolsonaro and sign agreements before they have dinner.

Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Brazil when he travelled there for Bolsonaro’s January 1 inauguration.

In their discussions then, the two right-wingers talked up their budding “brotherhood” which they said would boost military, economic, technological and agricultural cooperation.

Netanyahu is facing a tough challenge from centrist former military chief Benny Gantz in Israel’s elections and is also under threat of indictment on corruption allegations.

Pompeo’s visit this month and Netanyahu’s trip to the United States to meet Trump last week - cut short due to a flare-up in the Gaza Strip - was widely seen as providing a boost to his campaign.

He has sought to present himself as Israel’s essential statesman, and Bolsonaro’s visit may include similar rhetoric.

Both Netanyahu and Bolsonaro have good relations with Trump.

During the Brazilian leader’s visit to Washington this month, the US president heaped praise on Bolsonaro in announcing a special relationship that he said could even see the Latin American country join NATO.

For years Bolsonaro was little more than a marginal congressman, but his Trump-like campaign in 2018, promising to combat corruption and end politics as usual, propelled him to surprise victory.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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