Rodrigo Roa Duterte.
(photo credit: PRESIDENTIAL COMMUNICATIONS OPERATIONS OFFICE)
Controversial Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s trip to Israel is already kicking up a dust storm, and he hasn’t even arrived.
Duterte, as Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced on Tuesday, is scheduled to arrive on a four-day state visit beginning September 2. He is the first ever Philippine leader to be making the journey.
As someone who told former US president Barack Obama to “go to hell,” who said he would eat a terrorist’s liver if he captured one alive, and who likened his war on drugs to Hitler’s war against the Jews (he later apologized for that statement
), it was to be expected that this trip to Israel would have its share of controversy. What is somewhat surprising, however, is that the controversy – at least in the Philippines – started even before the trip began.
On Tuesday, Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque, was quoted in the Philippine media as saying at a press briefing that there was nothing wrong in Duterte’s decision to bring retiring police and military officials with him to Israel, something Duterte said he was doing to “reward” them for their service.
“I would be going there with some of the retiring military and police officers,” he told reporters on Monday. “There are many of us. That is my gift to them for serving the country well. We will practice shooting there at Sinai.
This statement triggered criticism inside the country with one senator, Panfilo Lacson, quoted as saying that presidential trips abroad must have a higher purpose than rewarding those in government.
Roque, however, said that including the police and army officers was a “gesture of appreciation” and “part of the reason” they will be joining the trip.
He added, “Obviously, for security personnel, a trip to Israel would entail collaborating and mingling with security forces of Israel in order for our men in uniform to benefit from the experience of Israel, particularly in their drive against extremism and terrorism.”
The latest row over the trip came just a day after Duterte deflected claims that he was coming to Israel for medical treatment.
Duterte has said repeatedly over the last couple of weeks that he was going to Israel, and then on to Jordan, to see how tensions in the region were impacting on Filipino workers. He said there are 28,000 Filipinos working in Israel, and another 48,000 in Jordan.
“It’s getting hotter there. And also on the Lebanese front, there is something brewing,” he said. “That’s why I am bringing [special envoy for overseas Filipino workers Roy] Cimatu to prepare for that eventuality and just in case war breaks out.”
But on Saturday, Gary Alejano – a fierce Duterte critic in parliament – tweeted that his visit to Israel was for health reasons, not out of concern for Filipino workers.
“I want the president to be healthy with a sound mind and body for the sake of our country,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “We need a president who can assure the people in times of disasters and calamities, provide leadership and direction when there is chaos, provide solutions when faced with serious problems. A sick and incapacitated president will lead the country to perdition.”
On Monday, Duterte dismissed the claims he was coming to Israel for treatment.
“If they operate on my brain there, the better. There will be no more problems,” he joked, according to the Philippine Star website. “And then I can have my stomach open, my chest open and my brain.”
The report added that he lashed out at Alejano, saying of the concern about his health, “I will have my stool collected and reserve it for him.”
Duterte’s aide Christopher Go was quoted in the report as telling a local radio station that if Duterte critics do not stop, “Israel has the capability to examine their brains and see if it has ailments.”
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