Date : 07/01/2008 , Mon
A Newspaper Published by World Institute for Asian Studies.
Vol. 06 No. 16   

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Date : 2006-05-02
More Asian Muslims Build Ties with Israel; Malaysia Demurs
By Dr. Richard L. Benkin

With its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last year, Israel found leaders from Muslim Asia virtually standing in line for some sort of contact with the Jewish State. In the months that followed the initial contacts, informed diplomatic sources were almost ecstatic with the actual and expected contacts. One individual told a Muslim leader wavering over the matter that if he does not act soon, he will find his country belatedly doing it anyway, but without the diplomatic bounce and other benefits that others will no doubt see.

Whether or not there was any cause for optimism remains unclear. But what is clear is that not a single Muslim nation has recognized the Jewish State as a result of or since Israel’s Gaza withdrawal. There has been a flurry of diplomatic contact and promises of things to come. Probably the most highly publicized contact came in September 2005, when Foreign Ministers from the world’s second largest Muslim nation, Pakistan, and Israel met and publicly shook hands in Istanbul, Turkey.

Israeli Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom touted the meeting as the first step on the road to more extensive relations. The Pakistanis followed that move 18 days later with an address by their strongman, General Pevez Musarraf, to the Council for World Jewry of the American Jewish Congress in New York. Musharraf was encouraging, calling the Jews “the most distinguished and influential community in America” and saying that his country would build ties with Israel and the Middle East peace process progresses.

Jewish leaders were ecstatic, but the move should not be attributed to Gaza. Gaza was the public face for it, but negotiations began two years before the withdrawal, and there were other clandestine contacts between the two countries for at least ten years prior to the Istanbul meeting. In 2004, Musharraf shook hands with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and noted that eventually their two countries would have diplomatic relations. And while Musharraf’s actions were indeed bold and built heretofore non-existent bridges, his actions have been attributed to his desire for closer ties to the US at a time when arch-rival India was forging its strongest ties with both the US and Israel in decades.

More significant but less noticed was the public meeting between Israel and Indonesia, the world largest Muslim nation, at the United Nations 60th anniversary gathering. Indonesia, unlike Pakistan, is a democracy whose leaders could find themselves out of power if they antagonize voters; something other leaders subject to popular mandates frequently site as the main reason why they have not made contact with Israel.

Significantly, there has been no political fallout from the public meeting and press reports indicate that public reaction has been mild or absent, with the exception of short-lived protest remarks from openly Islamist organizations. In March, the Indonesian government deliberately allowed an Israeli business delegation to participate an international business conference held in their country. Their presence there also allowed for multiple meetings to explore further Indonesian-Israeli commercial relations.

Some of the so-called Maghreb countries of North Africa have re-started some level of relations with Israel after breaking them off at the start of the Israeli-Arab violence in 2002. This includes Morocco and Tunisia with Libya making periodic noises about the prospect of contacts. The same process has taken place among several Gulf States, such as Qatar, Bahrain, and others. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) claims to have good diplomatic relations with "most Asian nations." The Muslim states of the former Soviet Union have established strong ties with Israel. Azerbaijan has an office in Tel Aviv, though not full diplomatic relations like its fellow Muslim nations of the former Soviet Union. The nation has maintained its status as “Muslim but secular.” Recently, Azerbaijanis have complained about foreign jihadists invading their country and agitating for a change. Thus far, native Azerbaijaini Muslims have resisted them successfully. Turkey has had full relations with Israel since 1949, a year after the Jewish State declared its independence.

Two Muslim countries that have so far refused to have any public contact with Israel are Bangladesh, the world’s third largest Muslim nation, and Malaysia, which made headlines in 2003 when its outgoing Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammed, issued an anti-Semitic tirade at the 10th annual meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conferences in Putrajaya, Malaysia. His reaction to the storm of protest that followed did not help matters any. The speech, among other things, alleged that the Jews "ruled the world by proxy." The protest against his remarks, he said, only proved that they do. In late April, Malaysian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Shabery Cheek's announced that his country would not establish any contact with Israel until a full resolution to the Middle East conflict. "Israel has not met certain conditions," he said. "There is no reason for Malaysia to review its position." Cheek, however, sought to place some distance between the Malaysian regime and international firestorm that came courtesy of Mohammed's comments. "The Jews are not our enemies," he made certain to add.

One Bangladeshi citizen remarked that he could not understand his government’s refusal to entertain relations with Israel "when Egypt has an embassy in Tel Aviv." He said that Israel would offer his impoverished country "good business relations" and other forms of aid his people need.

An official in the Israeli MFA noted that interaction with Israel has meant prosperity for the Muslim countries that are doing it. Benefits have come in the form of millions of dollars in trade and investment, technology, and assistance in areas such as medicine and agriculture in which Israel excels. "No country has ever been sorry about it. They get so much from the relationship," he said. "Just ask the African countries we have been helping for decades; or the Mauritanians who have a have a state of the art Israeli hospital in their capital. We can help in so many ways, and it is good for us, too. But we are a small nation, and those countries that lag behind and do not start talking to us soon might find that by the time they do, there isn’t anything left to give."

- Asian Tribune -

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