8 questions for the Philippines' ambassador in Israel

Celebrating 60 years of close bilateral diplomatic relations.

Philippines Ambassador Neal Imperial (photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
Philippines Ambassador Neal Imperial
(photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
Sometimes it feels like everyone hates us.
We are surrounded by hostile neighbors, most Arab countries want nothing to do with us – so much so that they won’t even allow Wonder Woman to be shown because it stars an Israeli actress. European countries aren’t fond of us either; even Sweden, which famously loves everyone, somehow finds reasons to dislike us. It seems that hardly a day goes by without some branch of the UN condemning us and passing resolutions against us.
It is nice to know, then, that there is one country that has consistently been our best friend in Asia and one of our best friends in the world.
Israel and the Philippines are celebrating an anniversary throughout 2017: 60 years of close bilateral diplomatic relations. A full slate of commemorative activities is planned, as well as intergovernmental efforts to make the relationship closer and more profitable for both countries.
Metro sat down recently with Ambassador Nathaniel “Neal” Imperial at the Philippine Embassy in Tel Aviv. The 48-year-old diplomat greeted us in the Quezon Room, lined with photographs and other memorabilia of former president Manuel Quezon and his heroic efforts to provide a safe haven in the Philippines for European Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
Of all the places you could have been posted to, how did you find yourself here in Israel?
I’m fortunate that after I was posted to Singapore for six years – I was consul-general there – I was recruited to work in our Department of Foreign Affairs’ Middle East and African Affairs office, where I became executive director, handling Israel and other countries of the Levant. That was my introduction to Israel and our relationship to this country.
I guess that I’m also lucky because after handling our relations with Israel for about two and a half years, I was recruited to become the ambassador here. This is my first ambassadorial posting. I’ve been here now almost three years.
What is the Philippines’ position on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?
The focus of my work here is to cultivate bilateral relations with Israel. We have another ambassador whose jurisdiction is the Palestinian areas, so I don’t really have to talk to the Palestinian Authority in my posting here. We have good relations with both sides. We have, of course, our own policies and our own priorities. We focus on different areas with regard to our relations with both, but my job is to focus on our relations with Israel.
That said, are there any plans to move your embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
First let me begin at the beginning. In 1947 we were the only Asian country that voted for the United Nations partition plan that created the State of Israel, and we have recognized the Palestinians as well as the Israelis. We have always supported the two-state solution. Part of that support includes the eventual recognition of the capitals of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. As of now, that issue remains unresolved, so we have the same position as almost every other country on this; that is the reason our embassy remains in Tel Aviv for now.
Once the matter is resolved by both sides, I’m sure we will make the right decision about whether to move, and where to move. As of the moment, we do have an honorary consul in Jerusalem, and his office is in west Jerusalem. That is my long answer to your short question.
Most Israelis are familiar with Filipinos as caregivers for the sick and elderly. Do you know offhand how many Filipinos are working here in Israel?
According to the Population Immigration and Border Authority, there are around 24,000 Filipinos in Israel as of 2016. Out of the 24,000, there are 20,000 caregivers, and around a fourth of them, unfortunately, are overstayed.
We told PIBA that in our analysis one of the main reasons why Filipino caregivers overstay is that they are charged exploitative placement fees by employment agencies when they arrive here, or before they come here, that can sometimes amount to $12,000. In a fiveyear contract, it takes them more than two years to pay off this amount. It doesn’t matter whether the agency is in the Philippines or here in Israel, they are all related, and they all profit from this. They divide the fees between them. They can have front offices in the Philippines, or they can have brokers and middlemen; it’s the same fees and the money goes to all the agencies.
It’s not legal in the Philippines and it’s not legal in Israel. The problem is, even though we encourage every caregiver who comes to the embassy for his or her post-arrival orientation seminar, which we give every week to newly arrived caregivers, very few have ever dared to file a complaint out of fear of losing their employment. Apparently they are fed this false information that if thy go to the embassy or file a complaint they will lose their jobs and be deported. This is not true, and it’s very difficult to persuade them, because they think they have something to lose. They’re heavily invested in their jobs, so it’s very difficult to ask them to risk their employment.
According to Philippine law, household service workers are not supposed to be charged any placement fee. According to Israeli law, the agencies can charge as much as $1,000 maximum, which is reasonable. The Israeli and Philippine governments are negotiating a bilateral labor agreement, which will hopefully resolve this placement issue, which will make it easier for Filipino workers to come here without paying such large amounts. We believe that once the placement issue problem is solved, this will lower the number of overstaying Filipinos.
So how does Israel compare overall with other Middle Eastern countries as a good place to work?
Well, I visited Saudi Arabia and I helped negotiate our bilateral agreement with them, and I can safely say that Israel is one of the best places in the Middle East for migrant workers. No. 1, the minimum wage is higher. No. 2, the workers’ rights are protected. No. 3, they have days off from work. In other countries they cannot have a day off. No. 4, there is also the freedom to worship, and that’s very important if you are living in the Holy Land.
Even though language is a problem – although many Filipinos have learned Hebrew here – the good thing is that a lot of Israelis can speak English, so it’s very easy for them to communicate. In terms of common values, I think we share a lot of similarities with Israelis. Just like Israelis, we are family-oriented. We like to eat, we enjoy outdoor activities and there’s that common love for freedom.
Why have so many Filipinos gravitated toward caregiving as a profession? Do you think Filipinos might have a special knack for this sort of thing?
It’s not only about caregiving, it’s about the general disposition of the Filipino. Caring and nurturing. This applies also to the hospitality sector, not just the caregiving sector. We have excellent hotel receptionists; if you go to a restaurant, the service is excellent.
This applies to the entire service sector; this is the reason why the service industry is so dynamic in the Philippines. As you know, we have the best call centers in the world, in terms of customer service, and our BPO – business process outsourcing – is top-notch, so I think it’s cultural. We’re a very friendly people. That’s why when an Israeli tourist visits the Philippines, what he remembers most is the kindness of the people, the warmth, openness and generosity.
Aside from the beautiful beaches, of course.
So where is this relationship going?
We have an enduring friendship between Filipinos and Israel, and we want to translate this into a stronger partnership. We look forward, first of all, to the Philippines head of state visiting Israel. The president has been invited to Israel by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and we are working on dates for the visit.
We’re working very hard to increase two-way tourism. A lot of Israelis are discovering the tourist destinations in the Philippines, and we’re also helping Filipinos doing pilgrimage tours here. They don’t come here for the beaches; we have beaches. They come here to visit the holy sites. We have suggested that Israel focus its tourism marketing to Filipino Christians, because the potential is huge. We have more than 90 million Christians in the Philippines. It is really surprising that there are more Indonesian Christians visiting Israel than Filipinos, even though there are only 20 to 25 million Indonesian Christians, and the two countries do not even have diplomatic relations. That means that Israel needs to do more marketing in the Philippines, as well as tapping the Filipino diaspora in Europe and the US.
We are also trying to promote the business process outsourcing sector. Israeli companies that want to expand globally will be more competitive if they are able to outsource some of their basic functions, and as I mentioned a moment ago, our BPO sector is top notch.
Of course we know that Israel is a center for innovation, so we want to learn a lot from the Israeli experience that has allowed all of these start-ups to succeed and prosper. Israel is also a leader in agricultural technology.
We have a very big agricultural sector, but it’s not that efficient or productive. So we want to adapt Israeli technology to the Philippine agricultural sector.
We actually have a lot of student trainees who work and study in the agricultural sector in Israel through a program run by MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. This year, we have more than 500 students here, in kibbutzim and moshavim. They work for five days and study in classrooms for one day each week. At the end of their 11-month program, they are able to save around $4,000 to $5,000 and none of them overstays, because they need to go home to graduate.
And finally, would you care to comment about the current peace and order situation in the Philippines, specifically the recent attack on a casino in Manila and President Rodrigo Duterte’s imposition of martial law in the southern island of Mindanao?
The Resorts World Manila assailant was a former employee of the Philippine Department of Finance who was dismissed from the service in April 2014 for failure to truthfully disclose all his assets. Judging from the video footage released to the media and the way he carried out his attack, it is highly unlikely that it was an ISIS or ISIS-inspired attack.
Initial investigation conducted by the Philippine National Police showed that the gunman did not shoot any civilians. Most of the fatalities were caused by suffocation due to the fire that the assailant started. All indications in the incident point to a criminal act by an apparently emotionally disturbed individual. The incident is thus an isolated case.
The Philippines remains safe for tourists. In fact, Israeli tourist arrivals in the Philippines have increased in the past few years, with Israel becoming the fastest- growing market of Philippine tourism in the region.
With regard to the imposition of martial law in Mindanao, it is important to note that the civilian courts are still in operation, human rights are respected, the constitutional checks and balances remain, curfew is in effect only in a few areas and violence is limited to a few areas in Mindanao. The declaration of the 60-day martial law there is necessary to suppress lawless violence and rebellion and to ensure public safety. There is no martial law in most of the Philippines and all businesses, airports and government offices are operating normally in these areas.
On bilateral cooperation with Israel in the fight against crime and terror, the two countries continue to exchange intelligence and information to counter terrorism. A proposal to sign a bilateral agreement to curb illegal drugs is currently under consideration.