On Israel: A new foreign policy direction?

OCT 9 — Every Malaysian who has ever owned a passport would have noticed a line of text printed at the very front of the travel document: “This passport is valid for all countries except Israel.” Malaysia is the only country in the world whose passports contain such an exclusion. The official anti-Israel position is very clear.

The Malaysian Government’s existing foreign policy does not recognise the state of Israel, has no diplomatic ties and prohibits any access or travel by Malaysians to the country. This prohibition also covers any sort of economic ties with the Jewish state.

A statement on Wisma Putra’s website states that “Malaysia would consider beginning relations with Israel only when a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people is successfully concluded.”

Therefore it was interesting to note the call for a “dawn of a much needed revised relationship between Muslims and Jews” in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s recent speech to the UN General Assembly. This coming soon after an increase in violence and tensions in recent weeks over the al-Aqsa mosque and confrontations between Israeli security forces and Palestinian youths.

Such a tenor is a significant deviation from the usual script used by Arab leaders, OIC member states and even the Prime Minister himself when responding to the ongoing cycle of unrest and violence of the Palestine-Israel conflict.

It was significant enough that the speech was picked up and remarked upon by The Times of Israel, a web based English language newspaper which declares itself independent and not attached or affiliated with any political party. The paper stated that “it was notable for a Malaysian leader to speak positively about Judaism and to recognise Israel as a legitimate interlocutor.”

Just a few years ago, Malaysia had called for Israel to be taken to the International Criminal Court over the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid. There are a number of Malaysian NGOs which receive direct and indirect public funding from the government such as Viva Palestina Malaysia, Aman Palestin, and Aqsa Syarif which are very active in advocating the Palestinian cause to the Malaysian public with extensive awareness campaigns on the alleged injustices and atrocities of the Israeli government.

A large number of Muslim NGOs continue to feature Palestinian suffering to cultivate public sympathy and fundraising for humanitarian assistance. Often the language used in these campaigns is anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic.

Anti-Jewish statements regularly feature during Friday sermons. Just last week, more than 1,000 people gathered in front of the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to protest against Israel over the recent Al-Aqsa mosque violence.

The demonising of politicians as being pro-Israel and Jewish-friendly has also been used by both the Government and Opposition time and again to discredit and smear their foes politically.

There has been so much ado about the photograph of the Prime Minister bumping into Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in the corridors of the UN HQ, you would have thought that Najib had high-fived Satan himself. Maybe some even felt that he had to be purified (samak) somehow. Let’s take a deep breath and relax.

It is interesting to note that while all the above is true, the reality could be significantly different.

We have short and selective memories when it comes to Israel. Ideology, rhetoric and our only human reaction that we have to the seemingly never-ending violence and suffering of the Palestinian people continue to colour our perception of the Jewish state and its people.

Not many realise that Israel had actually voted in favour of Malaya’s membership into the United Nations back in 1957. There had been direct communication with both David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir by past Malaysian leaders.

On a number of occasions, the Malaysian government seriously considered establishing formal diplomatic relations, particularly after Oslo. The current positioning vis-à-vis Israel stems from the sense of Islamic solidarity with the Arab countries and being a part of the Muslim ummah.

To this day though, formal diplomatic ties have not been established and there exists a ban on direct commerce with Israel since 1974. There is, nevertheless, an increasing flow of import and export trade between Malaysia and Israel worth hundreds of millions annually. Though conducted discreetly and often transacted through intermediate countries such as Thailand and Singapore, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics records show that in 2013, the total trade between Malaysia and Israel reached US$1.529 billion, almost double from the previous year.

PM Najib spoke of the need for forward-thinking leaders to put their people’s interests first and seems to have extended an olive leaf to the Israel government in his speech. Is Malaysia interested in playing a role in addressing and ending the violence and aggression in the Palestinian territories? In 2013, Najib visited the Gaza Strip and met with representatives of the Hamas government.  Does Najib see himself as a possible honest broker to bring in this new dawn between Muslims and the Jewish people?

Will we see Malaysia embracing pragmatic diplomacy in its dealings with Israel as part of this gambit and foray into the quagmire that is the Palestine–Israel conflict?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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