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Guns and Christians: Explaining Bolsonaro's Israel embassy move Open in fullscreen

Charlie Hoyle

Guns and Christians: Explaining Bolsonaro's Israel embassy move

Brazil's new far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is ardently pro-Israel [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 November, 2018

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A growing Christian Zionist political base, access to Israel's military hardware, and alignment with Trump's America lie at the heart of Bolsonaro's Jerusalem embassy plans.
The Brazilian president-elect's pledge to move his country's embassy in Israel to Jerusalem is designed to please his Christian Evangelical base and shore-up military deals with Israel - but it threatens commercial ties with Arab states and risks diplomatic isolation.

During campaigning in August, the far-right former army captain vowed to move Brazil's Israel embassy to Jerusalem and close the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia, claiming Palestine was "not a country".

Following the lead of US President Donald Trump, only Guatemala - and now Brazil - have announced plans to relocate their Israel embassies.

Brazil has supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than 50 years, and formally recognised the Palestinian state in 2010, during the term of leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

But Bolsonaro's embassy campaign pledge is part of a new political design for Brazil, one which aligns the country with Trump's America, makes further inroads into Israel's much-feted military industry, and promises a break from multilateral diplomacy.
The Brazilian president-elect's pledge to move his country's embassy in Israel to Jerusalem is designed to please his Christian Evangelical base and shore-up military deals with Israel

Christian Zionist base

Brazil is traditionally a Catholic country but changing religious demographics, coupled with a more general right-ward shift in political and social attitudes, are influencing the country's politics.

Up to 30 percent of Brazilians now identify as Evangelical Christians, up from just 6.6 percent in 1980, with Catholics projected to become a religious minority by 2030.

Evangelicals account for one of every four voters in the world's largest Catholic country and more than 20 percent of its federal lawmakers.

Bolsonaro, who married an Evangelical Christian woman and went to Israel in 2016 to be baptised in the River Jordan, has tied his political fortunes to the growing Evangelical community - and they see as sacrosanct the status of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.


Brazilian evangelicals follow Christian Zionism, the belief that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel was in accordance with a Biblical prophecy announcing the return of the Messiah.

The connection to Israel, and Jerusalem, is ideological for the Christian Zionist community, and any climb-down on Bolsonaro's risks alienating his base.

But for Bolsonaro, an ardent militarist, the Jerusalem embassy move also offers warmer relations and better access to Israel's technological hardware.

Israeli weapons

A former army parachutist, Bolsonaro has made no secret of his admiration for Brazil's military dictatorship, which ruled from 1964-1985, and he is a fan of Israel's advanced military technology.

His son, Flavio, and newly-elected Rio governor, Wilson Witzel, are due to travel to Israel to negotiate the purchase of attack drones which could subsequently be used by security forces, ostensibly in the fight against drug-traffickers.

Images showing two other sons of Bolsonaro, both of whom are politicians, wearing Israeli military t-shirts were shared on social media recently, reinforcing the belief that Bolsonaro seeks closer military ties with Israel and appreciates warm relations with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government could be key to establishing ties with Washington under President Donald Trump.

Bolsonaro's Jerusalem embassy pledge is part of a new political design for Brazil, one which aligns the country with Trump's America

Portraying himself as a hardliner who will restore security to Brazil's streets, Bolsonaro has promised to loosen gun control laws and bolster the military's standing.

Arab ties

Bolsonaro's announcement of the embassy move, however, has drawn ire in the Arab world, with a senior Palestinian official branding the move "provocative and illegal", while a spokesman for Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, called it "hostile".

This week, Egypt postponed a visit by Brazil's top diplomat to protest Bolsonaro's Jerusalem embassy move, diplomatic sources said.

No new date has been set for the visit, signalling open discontent with the president-elect's policy position.

There are also wider commercial ties to consider, with the Arab Brazilian chamber of commerce expressing concern at Bolsonaro's pro-Israel rhetoric.

Brazil is the world's biggest producer of halal meat, and much of it is exported to Arab states and nations in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which includes 57 countries.

The halal-certified food and beverage industry was valued at $415 billion in 2015, with Brazil's exports estimated at nearly $16 billion.


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