Jerusalem: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visited the Western Wall alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, becoming the first head of state to do so with an Israeli premier.
The visit came after Bolsonaro, sworn in as Brazil’s president on January 1, arrived for a three-day trip to Israel on Sunday.
The site, one of the holiest in Judaism, is located in east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.
Such visits can be seen as granting tacit approval to Israeli sovereignty over the site.
An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said it was the first time a sitting head of state had visited there with an Israeli prime minister.
The two men approached the wall and placed their hands on its stones during the brief visit in rainy weather.
Bolsonaro’s visit follows a similar one by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on March 21, when he became the first high-ranking American official to visit the Western Wall with an Israeli prime minister.
Bolsonaro has expressed his strong support for Israel and spoken of being moved by a Christian pilgrimage to the Jordan River he undertook a couple of years ago.
He has also pledged to follow in US President Donald Trump’s footsteps and move Brazil’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem, but that is on hold for now.
Moving the embassy would please Bolsonaro’s evangelical Christian support base, but would also risk provoking commercial retaliation from Arab states, some of which are major importers of Brazilian meat.
– ‘Tell you a secret’ –
Instead, Bolsonaro said Sunday that his government would open a trade, technology and innovation office in the disputed city.
“I’m going to tell you a secret: I hope that this is a first step toward the opening, when the time comes, of a Brazilian embassy in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said as he and Bolsonaro gave pre-dinner statements to journalists on Sunday.
The announcement of the new office however led the Palestinian Authority to recall its ambassador to Brazil for consultations.
“This decision constitutes a violation of the foundations of international law in east Jerusalem,” said Ammar Hijazi, deputy Palestinian foreign minister.
The Palestinians see the city’s eastern sector as the capital of their future state, while Israel views the entire city as its undivided capital.
In moving the embassy to the city, Trump broke with decades of international consensus that its status must first be negotiated between the two sides.
The Palestinians froze ties with the White House after Trump announced the move and declared Jerusalem Israel’s capital in December 2017.
Trump became the first sitting American president to visit the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray, in May 2017, but he was not accompanied by any Israeli leaders.
Monday’s visit and the one by Pompeo come ahead of Israel’s April 9 elections in which Netanyahu is facing a tough challenge from centrist former military chief Benny Gantz.
The visits have provided him with an opportunity to further his argument that he is Israel’s irreplaceable statesman, a key part of his campaign.
Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Brazil when he travelled there for Bolsonaro’s 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.
Both Netanyahu and Bolsonaro have good relations with Trump.
During the Brazilian leader’s visit to Washington last month, the US president heaped praise on Bolsonaro, 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.