On Israel and Duterte: It’s complicated, but good

It was our professional obligation to host him, and the fruits of the visit are already evident
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his speech to officials at Malacanang palace in Manila, August 6, 2018. (AFP photo/Ted Aljibe)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his speech to officials at Malacanang palace in Manila, August 6, 2018. (AFP photo/Ted Aljibe)

At the beginning of September, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Republic of the Philippines visited Jerusalem. The visit aroused sharp criticism in the local press — some of it appropriate and some of it superficial and exaggerated.

Before the visit, the Israeli media took note of every problematic utterance the Philippine president made. During the months of preparation, we at the Foreign Ministry knew we would be subject to strong criticism, which might jeopardize this important visit.

The easiest course of action would have been to try to prevent the visit, to find reasons to postpone it indefinitely and to avoid all the hullaballoo. None of us treated the visitor’s controversial statements lightly. Nonetheless, our professional duty was not to look for an easy, populistic solution, but rather to do what was in the best interests of the country.

We began to gather information and, from our analysis of the material, a picture began to emerge of a leader who is a strong friend of Israel, who aspires with all his heart to forge cooperation with us in a variety of areas that are vital to Israel’s national interests. He is also much wiser than the image projected from his statements, and he enjoys unprecedented support (over 88%, according to recent polls) from his own people, who chose him in a free, democratic process. Duterte is perceived in the world as a legitimate head of state, and Manilla is visited by many world leaders, some for bilateral visits and many for regional summit meetings. The United States, the EU, Singapore, Australia, Japan, and South Korea are among the states that view him as a dialogue partner. Some he has already visited, and some he is slated to visit in the future.

And so, we began to plan the visit in a way that would maximize the mutual benefit to both sides. The historic caregiving agreement signed by the president, which has no parallel with any other state, came to fruition only thanks to the visit. Israel has aspired to an agreement of this type since 2010, and indeed has been obligated by rulings by the High Court of Justice and State Comptroller reports. But, even more important, this agreement is moral and just towards the devoted Filipino workers who take care of the elderly, disabled, and other populations in Israel in need of their services.

The agreement lowers the fees per worker from $12,000 to only $800! The agents and intermediaries had been conducting a kind of modern slavery, making a huge profit off these wonderful workers (and for years preventing an agreement from being reached). Other states have looked at the agreement and their ambassadors have already contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with an eye to reaching similar agreements.

Israel’s interests vis-à-vis one of the most important growing economic powers in Southeast Asia cover a much broader field than caregiving. Close cooperation in combating terror, business opportunities in the defense industry, cooperation agreements between Chambers of Commerce, and agreements between private companies that were concluded during the president’s visit have almost overnight doubled civilian exports to the Philippines, with expectations for a huge increase in mutual trade. Also significant is the permit granted to the Israeli company Ratio Oil Explorations to search for oil on the shores of the Philippine islands.

The visit also led to the possibility of direct flights from Manilla to Ben Gurion Airport. The potential number of Filipino Christian pilgrims is estimated at six million, in addition to increased investments and business traffic from both sides. Other airlines from North and Southeast Asia are considering similar agreements for direct flights, such as those that began operation recently from New Delhi in India and Chengdu in China.

The Philippines is and has been a staunch friend of Israel and the Jewish people. This was demonstrated when the country opened its doors to Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II, again when it was the only state in East Asia to support the establishment of the State of Israel on November 29, 1947, and with the establishment of diplomatic relations as long as 60 years ago. Thus, this visit was an ideal opportunity to expunge the shameful statement concerning Hitler.

As is known, Duterte has already apologized a number of times for the statement. The emotional tour of Yad Vashem gave him the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust and its meaning, highlighting the importance of commemoration and the lessons learned from the most horrific tragedy in the history of mankind. It was enough to see the extensive, worldwide coverage of the wreath-laying ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance to understand the impact of the visit.

PM Netanyahu and President Rivlin did not shrink from the vocal criticism and received their guest with warmth and respect, as befits a friend of Israel. This put an official seal on the success of the visit and assured its achievements. The page is too short to list the full array of subjects discussed with the president, who is a great friend of Israel, the leader of his people who opened his heart to us in the past and continues to do so today. Our professional obligation was to host him. The fruits of the visit are already evident and we will see even more in the near future.

About the Author
Gilad Cohen is Deputy Director General for Asia and the Pacific at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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