Asia Watch: Better a Friend than an Enemy?

A first: Philippines President Duterte in Jerusalem with Israeli PM Netanyahu

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to Israel was certain to make waves – if not for the fact that it was the first visit of a Philippines president to the Jewish state, then certainly due to the nature of the man himself, whose bare-knuckled crime-fighting tactics and thuggish rhetoric have raised hackles at home and abroad.

Duterte’s war on the narcotics trade has been well documented. International human rights watchdogs claim the lethal campaign has caused upwards of 12,000 extrajudicial killings, while Filipino officials have denied any extrajudicial deaths, claiming that “only” 4,500 suspects were killed for firing first at officers. 

In 2016, in a bungled reference to an opponent’s remark that his rise could be like that of Adolf Hitler, Duterte fired back with a declaration that, “Hitler massacred three million [sic] Jews. Now there are three million drug addicts (in the Philippines). I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

Shortly afterwards, Duterte visited a Manila synagogue to apologise. “It will never happen again. That is why I am here, to say I’m sorry because I respect the Jewish people.”

Nonetheless, the criticism in Israel was vociferous in the days preceding the Israel visit, especially among left-leaning mainstream media and human rights groups, while Israeli Opposition leader Tzipi Livni described Duterte as “a very problematic person” and stated that the visit should be “very low profile.” That’s exactly what the organisers had in mind, given Duterte’s propensity for verbal faux pas, with most of the visit closed to the media. 

Given this lead-in, the main aims of the visit were somewhat overshadowed. Strategic cooperation and arms sales were high on the bilateral agenda, and Duterte and Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu oversaw the signing of three agreements in trade, science and care-giving. 

In 2017, Israel sold the Philippines US$21 million worth of military hardware, including anti-tank equipment and radars – a big increase on the US$4 million sold in 2016. More arms sales appear imminent as the Philippines is seeking large-scale procurements of advanced weapons to tackle domestic security threats, especially relating to terrorism in the wake of last year’s Islamic State-backed five-month siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi.

Standing alongside Netanyahu, Duterte referred to unspecified “equipment” Israel provided “when we needed it most” that proved “very substantial and critical” in defeating the Marawi insurgents.

“My order to my military [is] that in terms of military equipment, particularly intelligence gathering, we only have one country to buy from, that is my order, specifically Israel,” Duterte added.

On the softer side, the Philippines President was seen crying tears of apparent joy amid the warm welcome he received at an event with some 1,300 members of the Filipino community in Israel. He thanked the Jewish State for hosting up to 28,000 Filipino workers, who comprise a substantial portion of the care-giving workforce in Israel and whose financial remittances to family back home are important to the Philippines economy. One of the agreements signed during Duterte’s visit will financially assist care-givers by cutting out fees to intermediaries who bring them to Israel.

At their joint press conference, PM Netanyahu highlighted the countries’ long friendship and how the Philippines took in Jewish refugees during the Holocaust and was the only Asian nation to vote for Israel’s establishment. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1957.

“We remember our friends, and that friendship has blossomed over the years and especially over the last few years,” Netanyahu told Duterte. “We mark that this is the first visit by a President of the Philippines in the history of Israel. It is deeply appreciated.”

Media were allowed to cover Duterte’s visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where he struck a sombre note. Standing in the Hall of Names alongside his daughter Sara, Duterte said, “I could not imagine a country obeying an insane leader. And I could not ever fathom the spectacle of a human being going into a killing spree, murdering old men, women, men, children, mothers.”

Sara, who succeeded her father as Mayor of Davao City, is the daughter of Duterte’s divorced Jewish wife, Elizabeth Zimmerman, whose family fled Nazi Germany and found refuge in the Philippines. 

In their meeting, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin took the opportunity to say that Duterte’s visit to Yad Vashem would surely have illustrated to him the sensitivity surrounding any reference to Adolf Hitler. “Probably you have realised yesterday the feelings… of all the people that were part of this disaster,” said Rivlin, to which Duterte nodded attentively.

Still, Duterte couldn’t stop himself from blurting out to a gathering of Israeli businessmen in Jerusalem that he believes that the Mossad is eavesdropping on his every call. “For the life of me, I’m sure that Israel is – whenever I talk to – over the phone, I know that everybody is listening,” he mused, echoing claims made weeks earlier that Israel, Russia, China, Indonesia and the US were eavesdropping on his phone calls, and that the CIA had plans to assassinate him. 

“Some of the CIA guys are here, I know. If you are a CIA, kindly raise your right hand please,” he continued. No-one dared.