Enhancing Israel-Asia relations


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.

January 1, 2012 | 7 Comments »

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7 Comments / 7 Comments

  1. Yes indeed! I have heard more and more about Israeli ties to Asian countries. I understand that there is even a holiday in China today, that annually celebrates Israel’s apparently central role in allowing China to be self-sufficient in food production.

    So, why can’t Israel demand ‘diplomatic reciprocity’ for all these goodies? Why can’t Israeli diplomats and leaders, just before they sign off on the deal with China or South Korea or whomever, hold up at the last minute and say, “We’d love to sell you this latest wonderful agricultural gizmo that will increase your crop yields by 500%…but ah, we need a bit of help with this vote coming up in the UN. How about it?”

  2. I read Israel had come up with a new pesticide made of oil. The corn crop in the U.S. is under threat and the banana crop in Australia. In fact the banana plight may eventually affect bananas world-wide. If Israel can help, amen.

  3. It is time for Israel to expect diplomatic reciprocity. It is no longer acceptable for nations to play a double game where they benefit from Israeli technology while continuing to support our enemies in the U.N.
    Israel is, unfortunately, too slow to neutralize the Arab Oil Weapon. The solutions already exist but continue to be ignored or blocked. For a small sample of the advanced energy technologies and the politics that obstruct them please go to http://www.byronwine.com Among the technologies is using ordinary water as fuel. See the two Japanese companies running vehicles on water and also the story of American inventor Stanley Meyer and his water powered dune buggy. Unfortunately the two Japanese car companies disappeared and Meyer died under mysterious circumstances in 1998. The problem is NOT technology, as most assume, but rather POLITICS to keep the world enslaved to oil. Imagine if Israel could turn the world upside down with something like water power. Mayim Chaim!

  4. Article is good except about the BS on Asia helping Israel with the Peace Process with the PLO Nazis. But it will take time for the Leftist Israeli intelligentsia, who are tied to the EU like the Mixed Multitude in the time of Moses was tied to Egypt, to die out and have their stranglehold on the Israeli government and society loosened before Israel can really take advantage of economic ties to Asia. In the meantime, the next generation of Israelis should set up Ulpans to learn Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese,etc., so they can communicate with their future trading partners, while the Europeans stew in their old anti-Semitic juices in Eurabia.

  5. Europe is a lost cause; its Jew-hatred may be tempered in a few countries, but it can never be stopped. Israel might as well write it off.

  6. Israels future is in Asia, Today that’s where the growth potential is and that’s where the money is. Europe and America are broke. The EU will likely break up after the Euro is tossed and their political leverage will be reduced to zero. That’s when Germany begins to seriously remilitarise, they have not given up the dream of European and global dominance. They tried the military way and lost big twice in the last century, then the economic way since formation of the EU now it looks like the pendulum is moving back to the military option.

    Keep an eye on the Krauts they still have Imperial ambitions. Europe today is ripe for the pickings.