For two weeks in December, the heads of mission of Israel’s embassies and consulates throughout the world convene at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem for their annual conference. The purpose of the conference is to summarize the work of the past year, discuss ways to meet current diplomatic challenges, and formulate work plans for the coming year.
Among hundreds of millions of people on the Asian continent – from Hanoi to Jakarta, to New Delhi and Tokyo – Israel’s image is better than it has been in decades. The vast population there increasingly sees Israel as a small nation that has outstanding abilities, talents and energy and serves as a model of excellence, innovation and economic development – all of which the Asian states seek to emulate.
This perception was not invented by the Foreign Ministry’s Public Diplomacy Division. We hear it at almost every meeting, in Israel and abroad, from political leaders, parliamentarians, academics, business-people and potential investors. They are eager to explain why many Asian states have an unprecedented interest in deepening their ties with Israel in the fields of economics, culture, security, cyber, agriculture, water, energy, tourism, science and education, among others.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India early in 2018, and his tour with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Center of Excellence in Gujarat – one of 25 such centers established in India by MASHAV (Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation) – was widely covered by Indian media. Much of India’s population learned then for the first time about Israel’s advanced agricultural technologies. More than 600 million people in India support themselves through agriculture, a sector with prime economic, political and social importance for that nation.
Cultural ties are also increasing between Israel and countries in Asia. Israel’s consulate in Mumbai succeeded in positioning Israel as a major player in the prestigious International Film Festival in Goa. And the Foreign Ministry is working with other ministries to bring Bollywood – India’s enormous movie industry – to Israel to produce some of its movies. The potential impact of such a move on Israeli cinema is huge. As an added benefit, Israel’s landscapes would be introduced to millions of people, thereby increasing interest in tourism here.
In Japan, a recent concert featuring Rita and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra celebrated Israel’s 70th birthday. The event received broad media coverage and stimulated public interest in Israel.
The Embassy of Israel in Hanoi arranged for the camera crew of the popular TV show Top Model Vietnam to visit Israel, during which top Vietnamese models were photographed against a background of Israel’s varied and dramatic scenery.
IN THE HEART of Hanoi, a unique display of Israeli technology showed a vertical rice wall that could revolutionize city landscaping and supplement crops grown on agricultural lands.
The display drew much public, political and media attention. Israeli music was played at the event, and hundreds of Vietnamese joined Israeli artists in dancing the hora, much to the surprise of visiting Israelis.
These events follow efforts that have brought about a dramatic change in Israel’s public image in Vietnam, as officials who recently visited us have testified. They reported that diplomats posted in Hanoi from countries hostile to Israel have complained that Vietnamese media is less sympathetic to the Arab cause than it once was.
These and other intensive activities by Israeli missions in Asia have impacted the public in countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations. This is reflected in the growing number of tourists who visit here from such countries, including “pilgrimage tourists.” The number of Indonesian tourists visiting Israel, for example, has reached 40,000 annually, and a growing number of tourists are coming from Malaysia and even Pakistan.
Alongside this trend has been an impressive increase in the number of direct flights from Asia to Israel. Since 2016, six direct flights to Ben-Gurion Airport have been added from India and China. Efforts to open direct flights from Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia are in the works.
Government allocations in the past few years to cultivate relations with China, Japan and India have made it possible to bring dozens of delegations to Israel, with young leaders who are active in the fields of economics, politics, culture, innovation, technology and communications. This is a long-term investment in the future leaders of these countries.
Already, many articles and blogs seen by millions of people have presented Israel in a positive light.
In order to increase exposure to the Asian public, the Foreign Ministry initiated Israel’s participation in the Shanghai Expo – the largest Chinese import fair in the world. The giant event was attended by the entire Chinese leadership and headed by President Xi Jinping, who last year proclaimed that Israel was China’s main partner in the field of innovation.
Among other areas, Israel is working to attract Asian investment in the production and liquefaction of gas from Israel’s waters and finding export markets. Israel’s missions are also actively promoting free-trade zones with Asian countries in order to make Israeli exports more enticing.
With all these successes, there is still a lot of work ahead. Israel will continue to invest efforts and resources to meet future challenges and ensure its diplomatic, economic and security interests.
The writer is deputy director general for Asia and the Pacific at the Foreign Ministry.
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