President Shimon Peres’s groundbreaking visit to Vietnam in November with a delegation of more than 60 prominent Israelis, including two government ministers and leading figures in finance, industry, agriculture and defense was a landmark event. The delegation was given a rousing welcome, including a dinner with all the members of the Vietnamese government in which Peres’s hosts surprised him with a group of Vietnamese singers who had prepared renditions of Israeli songs in excellent Hebrew.
The visit is a symbol of the many opportunities for Israel and the wider Jewish world in Asia, not only in Vietnam, but also in Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, India, China and even Indonesia. In all these countries, democratic “start up nation” Israel – excelling in water, irrigation, agriculture, medicine, communications and hi-tech – retains an aura of fascination.
Israeli experts and businessmen across a wide spectrum of industries are already well-known as they engage in extensive investment, R&D, innovation and collaboration. Security contacts and exchanges are also important in some of these nations. Diplomatic and political contacts have not developed as quickly, but the Peres visit was part of a growing program of awareness of and purposeful engagement with Asia among Israeli political leadership.
This new diplomatic focus on Asia is important and timely, even if somewhat overdue. Most international affairs experts have speculated that the 21st century is likely to be the “Pacific Century” in which a major focus of world events moves away somewhat from the Atlantic – the relations between North America and Europe – and increasingly centers on North America and East and Southeast Asia, and the relations between them.
Moreover, Asia may be a key to countering the growing international campaign of delegitimization against Israel. It is true that Asian voting records within international bodies have not in general been positive on questions related to Israel. This is in part a function of solidarity with the Arab-dominated Non-Aligned Movement, but also reflects a lack of awareness in these countries of the true situation and context of the Israeli-Palestinian and wider Islamist-Israel conflicts. Further, more Asian states adhere to a robust view of state and national sovereignty, which provides for strong rights of national selfdefense and frowns on excessive outside oversight of measures taken within states to counter terrorism or other forms of violent unrest. Given these predilections, many elite opinionleaders and policy-makers from Asia have the potential to be quite sympathetic to Israel’s dilemmas in confronting terrorism, Islamist extremism and international delegitimization, if exposed to the factual realities of her predicament.
At the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), we have been co-sponsoring a program that we believe has contributed to building these growing ties. Together with the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, AIJAC’s Rambam study visit program has for several years been sponsoring a series of week-long study visits to Israel for journalists, academics, government officials, Muslim leaders, Bollywood movie producers and counter-terrorism experts among others from Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, India and Indonesia.
The positive effects of these short study visits on key Asian opinion leaders cannot be over-estimated. For example, most recently I accompanied a group of leading Indonesian journalists to Israel in September – the third such group of senior Indonesian media figures we have taken. Indonesia is, of course, an overwhelmingly Muslim country and sympathy there naturally lies with the Palestinians. But when exposed to the realities on the ground, most Indonesians quickly recognize that a two-state resolution is what is needed, and Israel is not the only party preventing this outcome from eventuating. And they go back home and unhesitatingly tell their publics – exposing them to views and information they rarely see in the Indonesian media.
For instance, Kartika Sari, one of the journalists on our recent visit, is an upand- coming young journalist working for Rakayat Merdeka – a Bahasa-language paper which has a circulation of more than 600,000 per day. She published no fewer than 15 stories directly reporting on her trip to Israel – most of which appeared on the front page accompanied by attractive photos. These included a positive interview and profile with Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, a plea from Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev for Indonesia to seek to play a more engaged role in the peace process and serve as a model of democratic governance for the Palestinians and the region, stories on the reality of life for Israeli Arabs and the scope and intensity of rocket attacks on southern towns like Sderot, which the group visited.
Other Indonesian journalists, in print and electronically, have also produced stories presenting a whole new side of Israel and the broader regional conflicts to Indonesian readers and viewers as a result of these study visit programs.
The Australian Jewish community has some unique strengths and areas of comparative advantage in assisting the quest for a secure Israel at peace with its neighbors – including the contacts, business links and relationships many Australians have with our Asian neighbors. And obviously this also applies to the American Jewish community. But much greater value would be added to these efforts if Israeli opinion leaders focused more on the political and diplomatic opportunities in Southeast Asia, a region which is only going to grow in global significance over coming decades.
In addition to the escalating economic and strategic importance of the Asian region, countries like Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim country – have a unique ability to help shape the Middle East in a positive way by serving as a role model of Islamic democracy and economic development and gradually improving human rights and personal liberty and encouraging conflict reconciliation in the region.
As the Asian component of our Rambam/ Project Interchange program has repeatedly demonstrated, this burgeoning region is open to learning about the realities of the Middle East. It is seeking ways to play a more positive role in enhancing economic and political development in Israel’s neighborhood and in developing mutually beneficial and constructive ties with Israel. It’s up to both Israeli and Diaspora Jewish leaders to continue devoting the time and resources to make sure our collective opportunities and capacities to encourage these positive trends are not squandered.
The writer is executive director of The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council in Melbourne.