Arabs and Evangelicals Closely Eye Bolsonaro Visit to Israel

David Biller and Samy Adghirni

(Bloomberg) -- Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro arrives in Israel on Sunday for a four-day visit that has as much to do with realigning foreign policy as it does with pacifying troubles on the home front.

Strengthening ties with Israel is a priority for Brazil’s millions of evangelicals, who helped sweep Bolsonaro into office and now want a reward -- moving the country’s embassy to Jerusalem, where they believe the second coming of Jesus will take place. The president depends on evangelicals and their large caucus in Congress to push his legislative agenda, starting with an unpopular overhaul of the pension system needed to fix public finances.

“I hope with all my heart for Bolsonaro to announce the embassy move,” Sostenes Cavalcante, one of the evangelical lawmakers in lower house, said in an interview. “If he doesn’t announce it, many lawmakers will remind him of it every day in Congress.”

Closer alliances with Israel and the U.S. under Bolsonaro mark a shift from Brazil’s traditionally more neutral foreign policy. The former Army captain, who some call a Latin American Trump, was also quick to support a regime change in Venezuela, bruising the principle of non-intervention long held dear in the nation.

Evangelical Power

Brazil’s more than 40 million evangelicals were key to Bolsonaro’s victory, with almost 70 percent showing support for him on the eve of elections. But in office the former Army captain focused on an economic and security agenda rather than the cultural and social concerns of evangelicals, much to the chagrin of their caucus of roughly 100 senators and lower house deputies.

Bolsonaro, who was baptized in the Jordan River in 2016, will visit holy sites during his visit, according to an official with knowledge of plans for the trip. He and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also attend an event showcasing Israeli technology companies, and ink agreements on defense, cyber security, water and agriculture, public security, and energy, among others.

Transferring the embassy comes with risks, namely souring relations with Arab nations. Such a move “would change everything,” Palestine’s ambassador to Brazil, Ibrahim Alzeben, said in an interview. “We won’t accept it nor will any Arab country. Relations will change at all levels, even trade. We appeal to the president’s good sense to not do that.”

The possibility that exports suffer or Brazilians become targets has members of Bolsonaro’s economic team and his top military brass on edge, according to Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank and business school.

In an apparent attempt at compromise, Bolsonaro said earlier in the week that Brazil could open a type of commercial office in Jerusalem.

That may be a disappointment for all sides, including Netanyahu, who faces a tough electoral challenge and had already celebrated the embassy move during his visit to Brazil in December.

To contact the reporters on this story: David Biller in Rio de Janeiro at dbiller1@bloomberg.net;Samy Adghirni in Brasilia Newsroom at sadghirni@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Cancel at dcancel@bloomberg.net, ;Raymond Colitt at rcolitt@bloomberg.net, Bruce Douglas

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.