- Associated Press - Sunday, March 31, 2019

JERUSALEM (AP) - The Israeli prime minister warmly received far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Sunday, touting newfound amity between the two countries.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s red-carpet welcome for Bolsonaro comes days ahead of a tough re-election bid for the long-time Israeli premier on April 9.

During his first state visit to Israel, the Brazilian leader is also expected to decide whether to follow President Donald Trump’s lead and move the Brazilian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that he has repeatedly promised.

During a press conference late Sunday, Bolsonaro said that Brazil would open a trade and innovation office in Jerusalem but stopped short of announcing a formal embassy move.

The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future state. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital.

Brazil, like other Latin American countries, has long sided with the Palestinians at the United Nations and other global bodies. But Bolsonaro has found common ground with Netanyahu’s right-wing government. His support of Israel is also likely to delight his evangelical base.

After landing, Bolsonaro opened his speech with the words “I love Israel” in Hebrew. “My government is firmly decided to strengthen the partnership between Brazil and Israel,” he added.

Netanyahu returned the praise, addressing Bolsonaro as a “good friend.”

“We are pleased that after years of relations that were a little hesitant, you have decided - we decided together - to open a new era of partnership and cooperation in all areas,” he said.

The two leaders signed several agreements on Sunday pledging defense, cyber security and police cooperation between their countries.

The high-profile photo op was likely to give Netanyahu a political boost as he runs on his reputation as a seasoned statesman in this year’s heated re-election campaign.

But Netanyahu has faced criticism at home and abroad for cozying up to authoritarian leaders - such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte - in his push for Israel’s international acceptance.

Some of Netanyahu’s new allies, such as Orban and Duterte, have come under fire for making anti-Semitic comments, adopting a revisionist approach to painful chapters in Jewish history and stoking animosity toward Jews at home.

Bolsonaro, a former army chief, has drawn condemnation for his disparaging remarks about gay people, women, indigenous groups and black people during his 28-year career as a Brazilian congressman. Rights groups have raised alarms about his administration’s hard-line approach to security and protection for police officers who commit crimes.

Israeli activists protested outside the airport as Bolsonaro landed, raising a rainbow flag with the words “The Holy Land doesn’t want homophobes here” in Portuguese.

For the remainder of his four-day trip, Bolsonaro is set to visit Israeli security forces and pay his respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.


This story has corrected the spelling of Orban’s first name to Viktor.

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