March 31, 2019 / 8:51 AM / 20 days ago

Brazil's Bolsonaro begins Israel visit with embassy decision pending

* Far-right leader visits a week before Israeli election

* Bolsonaro has pledged to move embassy to Jerusalem

* The move faces opposition at home

JERUSALEM, March 31 (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro began a visit to Israel on Sunday with a decision pending on fulfilling a promise to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, a policy change opposed by military officers in his cabinet.

The four-day visit by the far-right leader comes a week before Israel’s closely contested election in which the right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling a popular centrist candidate and corruption allegations, which he denies.

“I love Israel,” Bolsonaro said in Hebrew at a welcoming ceremony, with Netanyahu at his side, at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport.

Netanyahu said he and Bolsonaro would sign “many agreements”, including security deals, and that the Brazilian leader would visit Judaism’s holy Western Wall, “in Jerusalem, our eternal capital”.

A leading Israeli financial news website, Calcalist, reported on Sunday that Brazilian state-run oil firm Petrobras was considering bidding in a new tender to explore for oil and gas offshore Israel and a final decision would be announced during Bolsonaro’s visit.

Earlier this month, a Brazilian government official told Reuters no decision had been made on the embassy move, but “something will have to be said about the embassy during the trip”.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that a formal announcement might not come during the visit.

Visiting Brazil for the Jan. 1 presidential inauguration, Netanyahu said Bolsonaro had told him that moving the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv was a matter of “when, not if”.

Like Netanyahu, Bolsonaro is an outspoken admirer of U.S. President Donald Trump, who moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem last May, five months after breaking with international consensus and recognising the city as Israel’s capital.

Bolsonaro also enjoys strong evangelical support at home. Netanyahu has courted U.S. evangelical leaders during his current decade in power.

But in an interview in February, Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourao, a retired army general, told Reuters that moving the embassy was a bad idea because it would hurt Brazil’s exports to Arab countries, including an estimated $5 billion in sales of halal food that comply with Muslim dietary laws.

Bolsonaro’s economic team and the country’s powerful farm lobby have advised against relocating the embassy to Jerusalem.

Israel captured East Jerusalem along with the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians seek to establish a state in the two territories, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia; Editing by Dale Hudson

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