Whither Malaysia?

Will Israeli diplomat David Roet’s visit be a one-time anomaly or the start of a new beginning in Israeli-Malaysian relations?

February 15, 2018 21:27
3 minute read.
Whither Malaysia?

EMIR Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani inspects an honor guard during a state welcome ceremony at the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

At the end of December, not long after US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak led thousands in protest.

“There are 1.6 billion Muslims,” Najib, the leader of the Muslim-majority nation in Southeast Asia, declared.

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“There are only 13 million Jews. It does not make sense if 1.6 billion lose to the Jews. If we don’t unite, we will be looked down upon.”

Greatly exaggerating the extent of Jewish power and blaming the Jews for one’s own failures is a common trait of the antisemite. Malaysia, like other Muslim nations, has a long history of knee-jerk rejection of anything Israeli and blind support for anything Palestinian.

In the winter of 2013, Razak paid a visit to Hamas’s rulers in Gaza and announced, “We believe in the struggle of the Palestinian people. They have been suppressed and oppressed for so long.”

The Malaysia government’s anti-Israel/antisemitic sentiment carries over to nearly every imaginable area of life. In 2016, for instance, Malaysia hosted a windsurfing competition but conditioned participation of Israeli players on them erasing all national symbols from their surfboards or their swimsuits. Malaysia ultimately refused to grant the Israelis visas.

Malaysia’s antipathy toward Israel predates even the blatantly antisemitic Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who came to power in 1981. Explanations for Malaysia’s anti-Israel sentiment include the lobbying of Muslim extremists inside the country, the desire of leaders to counter claims by neighbor and rival Indonesia that Malaysia was a neocolonialist outpost of Britain, and the belief that the Arab nations were Malaysia’s natural allies.

Yet, last week David Roet became the first Israeli diplomat to visit Malaysia on an official visit since 1965, when Malaysia broke all diplomatic relations with Israel to cultivate ties with the Arab countries and with the Non-Aligned nations of Africa and Asia.

Roet headed a delegation of three Israelis to a UN-sponsored conference in Kuala Lumpur that dealt with challenges of urbanization such as water purification, sewage treatment and sustainable energy solutions – areas in which Israel is an innovator.

Though Israel has much to offer underdeveloped countries that are unable to deal properly with their rapidly expanding urban areas, Malaysia’s leaders agreed to the Israeli delegation’s participation only after Israel applied pressure via UN institutions, including the office of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Roet told The Jerusalem Post’s Diplomatic Correspondent Herb Keinon that Malaysia was a “tough nut to crack” but that he nevertheless attempted to convince the Malaysia officials with whom he met that boycotting Israel was counterproductive.
“I told them that we have relations with a number of countries that don’t agree with us on the conflict with the Palestinians, but with whom we maintain good ties,” he said.

“People are willing to take advice from people who are their friends, but not from enemies. And... boycotting Israel just distances Malaysia from having any influence.

“Did I convince them? I can’t say that,” Roet said. “But this is a positive sign.”

To say that we are completely comfortable with attempts by Israeli diplomats to force themselves on the Malaysians, who have such a long history of fostering antisemitism without ever having met a real-life Jew, would be incorrect. But opening doors in Southeast Asia is, ultimately, an Israeli interest that would benefit the Jewish state both economically and diplomatically. And

Malaysia has much to gain from commercial and technological ties as well.

Malaysia should ask itself what it gains by blindly following the lead of poverty-stricken, backward Arab countries that can’t stop killing one another in bloody wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya in far greater numbers than Israel ever has.

Will Roet’s visit be a one-time anomaly or the start of a new beginning in Israeli-Malaysian relations? For the sake of both countries we hope it is the latter.

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