Brazil's Bolsonaro visits Israel amid speculation on embassy

ANNA JEAN KAISER
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro listens to a reporter's question at the end of a military ceremony where he was awarded the Order of Military Judicial Merit, in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, March 28, 2019. Bolsonaro, a former army captain who waxes nostalgic for the 1964-1985 dictatorship, on Monday asked Brazil’s Defense Ministry to organize “due commemorations” to mark the upcoming March 31st anniversary of Brazil’s 1964 military coup. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was leaving Saturday on an official visit to Israel, where he was expected to decide whether he will move the Brazilian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The far-right president has repeatedly promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, despite longstanding complaints that such moves would complicate efforts to reach peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"As I promised during the campaign, we intend to move the Brazilian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel is a sovereign country and we respect them," Bolsonaro tweeted four days after winning the election.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro in December and told reporters that "Bolsonaro said it was not a matter of if, but a matter of when."

But the Bolsonaro administration is divided about the plan. In January, Bolsonaro's vice president, retired army Gen. Hamilton Mourao met with Palestine's ambassador to Brazil. After the meeting, he told reporters, "Brazil, for now, is not thinking of moving the embassy."

Marco Bastos, a political analyst, said Bolsonaro has two groups to please domestically with the move: evangelicals, a large part of his base, and the Brazilian Jewish community.

Bolsonaro is also an open admirer of Donald Trump, whom he visited on his first trip abroad as Brazil's president and who has already moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

"The new right in Brazil is trying to imitate the new right in the US. There's no real strategic interest in moving the embassy," Bastos said, citing Brazil's long tradition of pragmatic, friendly relations with nearly all foreign countries and the nation's multi-billion-dollar meat exports to Arab countries.

Brazil is the largest producer of beef that meets Islamic halal standards and Bolsonaro's repeated promises to move the embassy have prompted the Arab League and the Arab-Brazilian chamber of commerce to warn against the embassy change.

Bolsonaro is to meet with Netanyahu on Sunday followed by the signing of several agreements. On Monday and Tuesday, he is scheduled to meet with Brazilian groups in Israel and visit an array of Israeli security forces before returning to Brazil on Wednesday.