First-ever visit by an Israeli prime minister marks an abrupt shift in relations between Jerusalem and Brasilia following 16 years of tension under Brazil’s left-wing regimes
Marcus M. Gilban
Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, exit after a visit to the Kehilat Yaacov synagogue, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 28, 2018. Photo: Leo Correa/Pool Photo via AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gained pop star status among Brazilians during a five-day visit to their country to attend the inauguration of the new president, Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazil’s most influential primetime newscasts, Jornal Nacional and Fantastico, dedicated several minutes to coverage of the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Brazil.
The warm feelings between Israel’s right-wing prime minister and Brazil’s most right-wing president in three decades played out in public events and on social media. They contrasted with the previous 16 years of tension between the two countries’ under Brazil’s left-wing regimes.
“This visit is unique, historical, a turnover in the relationship between Israel and Brazil. It’s a great start of year 2019,” Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, Yossi Shelley, told JTA.
“Bibi crowns Bolsonaro’s once-in-a-lifetime moment,” Israel’s honorary consul, Osias Wurman, told JTA to explain Netanyahu’s unexpected popularity.
This city was the starting point for Netanyahu along with his wife, Sara, and their son, Yair. After landing, the prime minister headed straight to the Copacabana fort, where he was surprised to be awarded the National Order of the Southern Cross, Brazil’s highest national honor for high-ranking guests, by Bolsonaro.
“We will be starting a difficult government from January. In order to overcome the obstacles, we’ll need good allies, good friends, good brothers. Like Benjamin Netanyahu,” Bolsonaro said about the only foreign leader he met prior to being sworn in.
Bolsonaro also joined Netanyahu at a Dec. 28 ceremony at the Kehilat Yaacov synagogue in the heart of Copacabana, Rio’s most heavily Jewish neighborhood. Some 500 members of the 30,000-strong Jewish community there attended the ceremony at the Orthodox synagogue, shouting “mito” (Portuguese for myth or legend) at Bolsonaro, and Netanyahu’s nickname, “Bibi.”
“We can’t understand that we had to wait over 70 years for an Israeli prime minister to visit Brazil,” Netanyahu said in Hebrew, calling Bolsonaro “yedidi,” my friend, and “mitos.” “It’s not just friendship, not a pact of interest, it’s also a pact of brothers.”
Bolsonaro said: “It is with great honor that today I meet the man that is to me an example of patriotism, austerity and work for his people. I have always mentioned Israel as an example. Look what they don’t have and see what they are. Look at Brazil, look what we have and see what we don’t have. We’ll be more than just good partners, we’ll be brothers.”
Back at their hotel, the Netanyahus held a private Friday evening Shabbat ceremony, where Freddy Glatt, the 90-year-old president of the Brazilian Association of Holocaust Survivors in Rio, offered the kiddush blessing over the wine.
“His visit is very positive to show Brazilians the good things about Israel,” Glatt told JTA. “Despite the leftist people who are usually harsh on him, he is very nice and surprisingly behaved with simplicity.”
Like most Cariocas, or Rio natives, the Netanyahus chose the beach to enjoy the 95-degree weather on Saturday morning. While Yair, 27, took a helicopter and went on a yacht ride at a pristine island off Rio, the prime minister and his wife took a stroll that drew the attention of locals and tourists. A scene of the pair eating at a seafront restaurant fueled a media spectacle. When someone in the crowd of onlookers yelled “Free Palestine,” Netanyahu immediately added “from Hamas.”
אחרי רצף פגישות מדיניות מוצלחות מאוד בברזיל, יצאנו לפגוש את העם ברחוב. אהבה אדירה למדינת ישראל! 🇮🇱 🇧🇷 pic.twitter.com/mqczK3FH9p— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) 29 de dezembro de 2018
On Sunday, the couple was escorted by Rio state governor Wilson Witzel and his wife for a visit to Sugarloaf Mountain, a city landmark. They headed for the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, but the prime minister could not leave the car for security reasons. At night, the statue was lit up with the blue-and-white colors of the Israeli flag.
The Israeli prime minister met with Jewish officials from several Brazilian states, including those concerned about the impact of Netanyahu and Bolsonaro’s right-wing politics.
“The Jewish community is quite diverse and we will work so that political differences do not affect our unity,” Fernando Lottenberg, president of the Brazilian Israelite Confederation, told JTA the day after Bolsonaro was elected in October.
At a news conference, Netanyahu highlighted Israel’s innovation and high technology contributions to the world. He also spoke of Bolsonaro’s plans for the Israeli Embassy.
“President Bolsonaro said he’ll move the embassy to Jerusalem. It’s not a matter of if, but when,” Netanyahu told the audience about the Brazilian leader’s promise during the campaign. “President Trump said the same thing, he moved the embassy. And President Bolsonaro will move the embassy as well.”
Israel also offered assistance to Brazil in domestic security — a key part of the Bolsonaro campaign in the crime-ridden country — including the sale of drones with facial recognition technology.
Bolsonaro’s pro-Israel stance during his campaign and Netanyahu’s eagerness to embrace the new leader have earned mixed reactions at home. Reporters at a briefing with an unnamed “senior Israeli political officer” noted that Bolsonaro has denigrated women, the LGBTQ community and minorities.
“Netanyahu has his own positions and no one can diminish them, both regarding women and regarding gays,” the official replied, according to Haaretz. “He is liberal in these matters, and it’s not just political correctness. … But our relations with countries like Brazil are important. We do not have the privilege of hunkering down in our fortress of purity.”
Netanyahu was joined later by Witzel and Rio’s mayor, Marcelo Crivella, at a meeting with several evangelical Christian leaders who, fiercely pro-Israel, played a pivotal role in supporting Bolsonaro’s election. Brazil has the world’s second-largest Christian population and the largest Catholic population.
“We have no better friends in the world than the evangelical community, and the evangelical community has no better friend in the world than Israel,” Netanyahu said. “You are our brothers and sisters, and we protect the rights of Christians.”
“President Bolsonaro’s first name in Hebrew is Yair, which is also the name of our son. It means he who brings light. And I think that we have now an opportunity together to bring a lot of light to the people of Brazil and the people of Israel. This is an alliance of brothers.”
During the event, the Brazilian state of Amazonas launched a commemorative stamp featuring a picture of Netanyahu and also honoring Israel’s 70th birthday.
Tuesday, New Year’s Eve, was a day to meet businesspeople who flew to Rio from all corners of Brazil. The following morning they flew to Brasilia for Bolsonaro’s inauguration.
“Let’s unite the people, value the family, respect the religions and our Jewish-Christian tradition,” Brazil’s president said during his speech in the Brazilian congress on Jan. 1 after being greeted by the Netanyahus.
In the capital city, Netanyahu held separate meetings with the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo; Chile’s president, Sebastian Pinera; and the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, who recently expressed his willingness to move its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu said Bolsonaro has accepted his invitation to visit Israel in March, weeks before Israel is slated to hold national elections.
“Until a few months ago Brazil was the unattainable goal of Israeli diplomacy. Overnight it has turned from hostile to sympathetic,” Netanyahu said. “This is a partnership that has been meaning to happen, meant to happen, and we’re going to make it happen very fast.”
Marcus M. Gilban, The Times of Israel, 3-4-2019