Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro didn't wait long to tweet, four days after winning the presidential election, of his intentions to move the Brazilian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Following in the footsteps of US President Donald Trump, Brazil will become the second-largest country after the US to take this step. Bolsonaro confirmed his promise in an interview with Israel Hayom, stating: "Israel is a sovereign state. If you decide on your capital city, we will act in accordance."
As previously stated during our campaign, we intend to transfer the Brazilian Embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel is a sovereign state and we shall duly respect that.
— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) November 1, 2018
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly took to Twitter to express his satisfaction with Bolsonaro's announcement: "I congratulate my friend, Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, for his intention to move the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem, a historic, correct and exciting step!" Of all the matters at the heart of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, none is as centric as the status of Jerusalem. In light of the non-influential Arab positions on the issue, will Arabs this time around use their influence to sway the Brazilian president to retreat from his decision to move the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem, and to recognise it as the capital of Israel?
Denouncing the decision
Palestinian leaders and officials from across the Arab world advocated strongly against such a move, which would be seen as an "attack" on the Palestinian people and a breach of international law. As the Palestinian Ambassador to Brazil Ibrahim Al-Zabin expressed to Agence France-Presse, the transfer of the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem is "a hostile act". In addition, the Arab League warned Bolsonaro that transferring the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be a retrocession regarding Brazil's relationship with the Arab countries. As a mark of solidarity with the Palestinian people, hundreds of Brazilian youths took to the streets of São Paulo to commemorate Earth Day.
In an interview with the former Brazilian Minister of Foreign Relations Celso Amorim, he informed MEMO that Brazilian-Arab relations are not only based on a trade exchange, but: "There are family relations, cultural relations, influence relations… Also, of course, there are Arab immigrants who play an important role in constructing Brazil." The Arab community constitutes a large proportion of Brazilian society, with many of them holding prominent positions within it. According to the International Organisation for Migration, there are 13 million Arab migrants in Brazil.
Bolsonaro's visit to Israel
In March 2019, two months after Netanyahu's visit to Brazil, Brazil's president arrived for a four-day visit to Israel. "I love Israel," Bolsonaro professed in Hebrew at a welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport, with Netanyahu by his side. "On your first visit outside the American continents, you're in Israel to bring our relations to a new high," Netanyahu announced at the same ceremony. Netanyahu and Bolsonaro have since signed "many agreements", including security deals.
Contrary to the rules of diplomatic protocol, Bolsonaro went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to the Wailing Wall, while in contrast, he did not visit Ramallah nor meet with Palestinian Authority officials during his trip. The ex-mayor of São Paulo and the Workers' Party candidate for president of Brazil in the 2018 election, Fernando Haddad, commented on Twitter on Bolsonaro's visit to Israel: "In Brazil, Christians, Muslims and Jews not only live in peace, but also marry each other. On a visit to Israel, Bolsonaro ignored the former, offended the latter and frustrated the latter, in addition to importing a non-existent conflict between us. No gain."
— Ruptly (@Ruptly) April 2, 2019
During the visit Bolsonaro was expected to announce whether he planned to move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In contrast, Bolsonaro announced that Brazil will open a commercial office in Jerusalem — a policy change due to opposing military officers within his cabinet.
"Trump took nine months to decide, to give his final word, so that the embassy was transferred," according to Bolsonaro, "perhaps now we will open a commercial office in Jerusalem."
The impact on meat exports to the Arab world
Although Bolsonaro seeks to shore up ties with Israel, he cannot afford to ignore key Arab trade partners. Brazil is the largest producer of beef that meets halal standards. "In the case of recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, for example, it would be throwing away $6 billion per year in poultry sales to Arab countries," Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian ambassador to Washington explained. In terms of financial interests, the numbers prove that what Brazil acquires from Arab countries by far exceeds what it obtains from Israel. According to the Ministry of Economy, Brazil's exports to the Arab world amounted to $10.8 billion in 2019, compared with $371 million to Israel.
Bolsonaro's visit to the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia
Brazil's president travelled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Saudi Arabia between 25-31 October, 2019, hoping to turn the page with Arab nations over a proposal to move Brazil's embassy. The Brazilian Foreign Ministry's secretary for bilateral negotiations with the Middle East, Kenneth Nobrega, noted: "The invitations to visit the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are evidence that the issue has been overcome." The trip was also intended to publicise investment opportunities in Brazil and to foster exports.
Arlene Elizabeth Clemesha, professor of Arab History at the University of São Paulo, explains that: "Bolsonaro has postponed indefinitely the idea of transferring our embassy to Jerusalem to preserve relations with the Arab countries. He has also travelled to Arab countries to try to maintain or actually rebuild relations, following the tension created over the issue of a possible Jerusalem embassy. However, he has always positioned himself on the side of those Arab countries which are also US and Israeli allies, such as Saudi Arabia. He tends not to mention Palestinians at all."
Eduardo Bolsonaro opened Brazil's trade office in Jerusalem
In December 2019, following two months of visits to Arab countries, Brazilian parliamentarian Eduardo Bolsonaro came to Israel and opened APEX-Brasil's trade office in Jerusalem, which he announced through The Times of Israel that it was the first step towards moving his country's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem sometime within the next year. "Yes. It will happen. Let us just do it in a smart way," he remarked on the embassy move.
Netanyahu says the two "committed to move Brazil's embassy to Jerusalem in 2020" https://t.co/X9dc5j4Bw0
— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) December 15, 2019
Eduardo Bolsonaro also predicted: "I don't think that if we move the embassy, we will suffer retaliation against our Brazilian products. I don't think it's going to happen." It seems that he confirmed what his father had previously noted in January 2019 in a television interview: "There are Arab extremist countries who will object to the possibility of Brazil moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but other countries will not." Some press reports speculated that Eduardo Bolsonaro was searching for European markets in case Arab countries refused to receive Brazilian meat.
Once Brazil's trade office opens in Jerusalem, will it be enough for Brazil? Or will Bolsonaro raise the issue again in an electoral context, to expand evangelical support in his 2022 re-election campaign, or possibly even before? Will Arab countries support the transfer of the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem? If the embassy is transferred, will Arabs manage without Brazilian meat? These questions will remain on the table until they, one day, become a reality.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.