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
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.
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.
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
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
The writer is executive director of The Australia/Israel
& Jewish Affairs Council in Melbourne.
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