Although Israel enjoys diplomatic ties with close to 160 countries, not all of their ambassadors reside in Israel, and even among those who do, it is rare to have all of them together at any one time.
There’s a greater inclination toward regional cohesion among the Europeans, Africans and Latins, Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday following a morning meeting ambassadors from Asia and the Pacific held with President Reuven Rivlin.
As the longest serving ambassador in Israel from the Asia-Pacific rim, Sharma is dean of this 11-member group, having succeeded Prahlad Kumar Prasai, who served as ambassador of Nepal.
Given Australia’s long-standing and supportive relationship with Israel, Sharma and his predecessors have had easy access to high-ranking public figures but he knew such meetings are much more difficult for ambassadors of smaller countries to arrange.
It’s part of the Australian psyche to stand up for the underdog, so Sharma made a decision to look out for the interests of the smaller countries in his region such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Sri Lanka and created a monthly program of meetings with senior public figures who have included inter alia opposition leader Isaac Herzog, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Supreme Court President Miriam Naor.
Ambassadors, consuls general and defense attaches have an opportunity to meet with Rivlin at receptions he hosts for the diplomatic corps on Israel’s Independence Day and on the eve of Rosh Hashana, but there is not the same sense of intimacy as in the meeting that took place on Wednesday when, in addition to Sharma, ambassadors of South Korea, the Philippines, China, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Japan, India and Myanmar, along with Nepal’s charge d’affaires in the absence of an ambassador, came to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
Absent from the gathering was the Taipei representative, who is the equivalent of an ambassador but cannot be recognized as such because Taiwan does not have full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Rivlin was most effusive in welcoming his guests to Israel’s capital, and was happy to see the ambassadors not only because of Israel’s historic ties with Asia, he said, but because of Asia’s importance in the present and future.
Having initially met most of the ambassadors when they presented their credentials, Rivlin was aware from their individual conversations that their countries were particularly interested in cooperating with Israel in the areas of science and technology, both of which lead to innovation.
He had seen examples of innovation during his recent visit to India, but knew of innovation taking place in other Asian countries and spoke of how much Israel is impressed with what has been produced by innovative Asian minds.
In recent years, Israel has successfully upgraded its trade relations with Asia and Pacific countries, and today, said Rivlin, 27% of Israel’s volume of trade is with Asia and the Pacific. The aim, he added, is to increase bilateral and multilateral trade in the region.
India is not the only country in the region Rivlin has visited in his various roles, and he shared anecdotes of these visits with his guests.
Relating to areas of cooperation, he was particularly proud of the academic cooperation – not only through the courses given by MASHAV, Israel’s agency for International Development Cooperation, but also that between Israeli and Asian universities.
The discussion between the president and ambassadors was wide ranging and included issues such as the Beduin crisis in the Negev. Rivlin conceded that this was a difficult and urgent challenge that must be addressed as quickly as possible.
He declined to comment on President Donald Trump, preferring to voice his confidence in the strength of the US-Israel relationship.
There was also some discussion on fundamentalism and the terrorist threat confronting the world. As he has in the past, Rivlin called for unity and cooperation to fight this scourge.
“We must all stand up and cooperate against those who believe that fundamentalism is the only way,” he said. “We have to be prepared to carry the burden of security which lies upon us, especially in the face of those who do not accept the very idea of Israel as a state.”
Sharma, speaking on behalf of his colleagues said that although the countries represented were diverse, they were united in their support for the security of Israel and the well-being of the people of Israel. They also appreciated what Israel has been able to achieve in the face of the unique struggles it faces, they said.
On a personal note, Sharma thanked Rivlin for making himself available as Knesset speaker, minister and president, as well as for his support for pluralism and equal rights for all peoples.
While some Asian countries are currently celebrating or preparing to celebrate milestone anniversaries of their diplomatic relations with Israel, Myanmar’s Ambassador Maung Maung Lynn, upon emerging from the meeting, proudly recalled that when his country was still known as Burma, as well as afterward, it was visited by Yitzhak Ben Zvi, David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Navon, Shimon Peres, Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan among other Israeli dignitaries, and that former Burmese prime minister U Nu, who visited Israel in 1955, was among the first foreign heads of government to do so.
Before leaving for Burma on December 5, 1961, Ben-Gurion issued a statement in which he wrote: I am leaving today for a new country but not a strange one; In all of Asia, there is no more friendly nation to Israel than Burma.
Israel and Burma are two old countries with old histories, which renewed their independence in 1948. Both are democratic and both follow the same principle in foreign relations – promoting friendly relations and mutual aid with all peace-loving countries irrespective of their internal regimes and without injuring the interests of any other country; loyal to international cooperation based on United Nations principles.
It was in Burma where Ben-Gurion learned to stand on his head, Lynn said.