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Brazil's Bolsonaro arrives in Israel for pre-vote visit

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro delivers a speech. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Jerusalem, Israel Mar 31, 2019, 06.31 PM (IST)

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

Bolsonaro was welcomed by Netanyahu and 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."

Bolsonaro said, "my government is firmly resolved to strengthen the partnership between Brazil and Israel."

"Cooperation in the areas of security and defence is also of great interest to Brazil," he said.

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 announce a timetable.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Bolsonaro suggested he was in no hurry to make a decision.

"Trump took nine months to decide, to give his final word, so that the embassy was transferred," Bolsonaro said.

"Perhaps now we will open a commercial office in Jerusalem."

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.

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 a surprise victory.