Beef over Bibles: What's blocking Brazil's Jerusalem embassy move?

Beef over Bibles: What's blocking Brazil's Jerusalem embassy move?
Comment: Agricultural exports to the Middle East are big business in Brazil, and Bolsonaro won't risk a policy that could easily backfire, writes Thomas Essel.
6 min read
20 Nov, 2018
Despite his campaign promise, Bolsonaro stated that the move 'hasn't yet been decided' [AFP]
Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro has been sending mixed signals over his campaign promise to move the Brazilian embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would echo the move made earlier this year by the Trump administration.

On 1 November, Bolsonaro stated that he would follow through on his promise, but walked back that statement a few days later, stating that "it hasn't yet been decided" if his administration will move the Embassy or not. Bolsonaro's indecisive stance on the issue begs the question: Will he actually move the embassy?

Beef over Bibles

As has been widely noted, Bolsonaro's pledge to move the embassy is intended to garner and maintain the support of Brazil's growing Evangelical population. Just like their American counterparts, Brazil's Evangelicals are fanatically pro-Israel and have a strong political presence in the national legislature.

Bolsonaro has long made a point of cosying up to Brazil's Evangelicals. In 2016, he was baptised in the Jordan River by Pastor Everaldo Pereira, the head of Brazil's Christian Social Party.

Bolsonaro maintains that he is a Catholic, but has attended a Baptist church for over decade. Additionally, his wife and son are Evangelicals. This gives the president-elect legitimacy among Brazil's Evangelical community, which comprises about 22 percent of the electorate, without alienating Catholic voters.

The success of the incoming Bolsonaro administration's policies depends on keeping the agricultural lobby happy

Additionally, Bolsonaro has tugged on the heart-strings of Evangelicals by making disparaging remarks about Palestinians and the Palestinian state, calling them "terrorists," and declaring that he will shut down the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia.

He was quoted by  The 
Times of Israel as saying, "Palestine is not a country, so there should be no embassy here."

Bolsonaro's remarks fly in the face of long-standing Brazilian foreign policy. Brazil, under the socialist presidency of the once wildly popular Luiz Lula da Silva, recognised Palestinian statehood in 2010.

It is important to note, however, that Brazil's Evangelicals are nowhere near as powerful as its agricultural lobby.

Read more: Guns and Christians: Explaining Bolsonaro's Israel embassy move

Legislators backed by the Parliamentary Agricultural Front (FPA) - the most powerful agricultural lobbying group - 
hold more than one third of the seats in the lower house of the Brazilian National Congress, and a quarter of the seats in the Senate. The FPA also endorsed Bolsonaro's presidential bid and they will expect to be rewarded for it.

The success of the incoming Bolsonaro administration's policies depends on keeping the agricultural lobby happy and voting Bolsonaro's way, which means not doing anything to overtly threaten their interests.

Brazil is the world's largest exporter of halal meat, its total exports in 2015 valued at over $15bn. In 2016, Brazil exported approximately $1.38bn worth of chicken, beef, and soy to Saudi Arabia alone.

The Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce estimates that 
Brazilian exports to Arab countries could reach as high as $20bn by 2022. Agricultural exports to the Middle East are big business in Brazil.

While moving the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem would score Bolsonaro major political points with the Evangelicals, it would also be a major slap in the face to the Palestinians, and runs the risk of Arab states retaliating by imposing economic sanctions on Brazilian imports.

While Arab states can turn to other suppliers of halal meat to satisfy consumer demand, Brazilian 
meat exporters are banking on the growing demand for halal meat to fill their coffers.

In the third quarter of 2018, BRF SA, Brazil's largest poultry meat producer derived one third of their profits from halal meat exports.

JBS, the largest beef producer, sent one eighth of their exports to the Middle East and North Africa.

Rubens Hannun, president of the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, said he was worried that the embassy move could open up the halal market to more competition, saying, "We do not want any noise in this relationship."

Just like their American counterparts, Brazil's Evangelicals are fanatically pro-Israel and have a strong political presence in the national legislature

But the noise has already started.

Egypt abruptly canceled a scheduled visit between the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aloysio Nunes, and Egypt's President Sisi.

A Turkish diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity said, "We are expecting Brazil to act with reason and not confront the Muslim world."

At a press conference on 8 November, Bolsonaro's pick for Agriculture Minister, Tereza Cristina da Costa, told reporters that she had "received calls from people who are concerned. From exporters, industrialists, especially from the meat sector, which is a major exporter to the Arab market."

If Bolsonaro does move the embassy to Jerusalem and it backfires by hurting Brazilian agricultural interests, he will find himself the enemy of the most powerful lobbying group in Brazil.

The mere potential for such an outcome makes the political payoff of fulfilling a campaign promise to the Evangelicals pale in comparison to the potential repercussions.

Keeping Evangelicals happy

There are less risky - however discriminatory - ways for Bolsonaro to please his Evangelical supporters.

Women's reproductive rights is one such avenue open to Bolsonaro. Brazil already bans abortion in all cases except for rape or fetal abnormality, though there has been a push in recent years to loosen these restrictions.

The Brazilian Supreme Court is currently 
considering whether the ban on abortion violates the Brazilian constitution, while Evangelicals are pushing for an all out ban. 

Additionally, Bolsonaro is vehemently opposed to gay rights, often blaming Brazil's social ills on the 'normalisation of homosexuality'. He infamously told Playboy Magazine that he could not possibly love a gay son, and would prefer to have a dead son than a gay son.

Evangelicals see Bolsonaro as a champion for traditional, conservative values who will protect Brazilian society from the scourge of liberalism and godlessness.

Bolsonaro's misogynist and homophobic policies are irrelevant to the agricultural lobby that dominates Brazil's National Congress, so their pursuit is a politically safe way to pander to the Evangelicals without having to threaten agricultural interests.

While support for Israel is important to Evangelicals, domestic social policies are far more important than foreign policy.

In short, moving the embassy simply isn't worth it and Bolsonaro knows that, which explains why he is suddenly dialing back his rhetoric on the move.

He is prepping his Evangelical supporters for the eventual let down and signaling the agricultural lobby - and the Muslim world - that there is nothing to worry about. While Bolsonaro is no friend to Palestine, he is no fool either.

Thomas Essel is a political activist and writer based in San Diego currently finishing his MA in International Security. He has been published by The Springfield News-Leader and Danthropology, among others, discussing politics, religion and history. 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.