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Israeli FM’s historic Philippines visit highlights Israel’s Asian ambitions

Jun 14, 2023 | Alana Schetzer

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (right) and Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Philippines Enrique Manalo (source: @SecManalo)
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (right) and Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Philippines Enrique Manalo (source: @SecManalo)

Last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen landed in the Philippines capital of Manila for a historic visit aimed at strengthening ties across trade, tourism, and security.

This trip was by no means unique for Cohen, who has already visited numerous countries on diplomatic missions this year, including India, Sudan, Azerbaijan and the United Kingdom.

However, it was the first official visit to the Philippines by an Israeli foreign minister in 56 years, and was timed to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the two countries establishing bilateral diplomatic relations. Cohen’s visit to the southeast Asian country was only the third such visit for an Israeli foreign minister – he follows in the footsteps of then-Foreign Ministers Golda Meir in 1962 and Abba Eban in 1967.

Cohen, who traveled with a delegation of Israeli businesspeople, met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo, and other senior officials.

Cohen and a separate group of Israeli businesspeople later travelled to South Korea, where they met with Foreign Minister Park Jin and senior officials for similar talks across trade, tourism, and security.

However, it was the visit to the Philippines that underscored Israel’s campaign to build stronger relations across southeast Asia.

Just before he boarded the plane to Manila, Cohen said: “We are strengthening relations with rising powers in southeast Asia. The visit will create policy opportunities for Israel in this important region.”

A history of Philippines-Israel ties

The Philippines is far from Israel’s biggest trading partner – it’s not even in the top 25. Yet there is a unique history of friendship between the Philippines and Israel, and indeed the entire Jewish people

During the late-1930s and up until the Japanese invasion of late 1941, then-Philippine President Manuel Quezon did what almost no other national leader had done at the time – he opened his country’s doors to Jews who had managed to escape Nazi Germany and Austria.

Quezon wanted to take in tens of thousands of Jews with his ‘Open Door’ policy, but the US government, which at the time still had a strong role in the country’s governance, interfered. Washington only allowed him to admit a fraction of that number – setting quotas of 1,000 Jews per year. Nonetheless, Quezon still managed to save 1,300 Jews from the clutches of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. These Jews later became known as “Manilaners”.

The Philippines then went on to become one of the 33 countries which supported the UN Partition Plan of 1947, which led to Israel’s creation. It was the only Asian country to vote “yes” to the plan.

On June 5, Cohen tweeted that Israel owes “a historic debt to the Philippines” for saving the “Manilaners”.

As one mark of that gratitude, Israel allows Filipino citizens to visit without a visa for 90 days. In 2017, approximately 23,500 Filipinos visited Israel, while 30,000 to 50,000 were living in Israel as part of the expatriate workforce.

Israel has also sent aid to the Philippines – for instance sending rescue and aid teams in the wake of devastating typhoons in 2013 and 2021. MASHAV (Israel’s Agency for International Development) offers training programs in the Philippines, teaching subjects such as clean technology, managing trauma systems, and food safety and technology. Another MASHAV project there is PICAT (the Philippine-Israel Center for Agricultural Training), established together with local Filipino institutions in 2006.

Over the past decade, both countries have actively increased economic partnerships, and Israel opened an Economic Mission in the Philippines to boost ties further between companies in the two countries. Israel’s biggest exports to the Philippines are currently electronics, defence, agriculture, chemical fertilisers, and medical equipment. Philippines exports to the Jewish state include electronics, chemicals, marine products, processed foods and clothing.

In 2022, trade between the two countries soared by a whopping 70% to hit a record US$534 million. Tomer Heyvi, Economic Counsellor and Head of the Israeli Economic Mission to the Philippines, said there was even more potential for growth.

“In recent years, we see a growing demand in the Philippines for Israeli products and technologies in various sectors such as agriculture, water, homeland security, cybersecurity, ICT and connectivity, medical devices and healthcare, among others.”

For Cohen and his accompanying business delegation, the trade portion of the mission encompassed numerous potential areas of focus: agriculture, water, healthcare, security and cyber, energy and green technologies, and emergency response. Cohen reportedly said at a business forum in Makati that he hopes bilateral trade will almost double to more than $1 billion by the end of next year.

“In 2022, our bilateral trade for the first time overpassed half a billion dollars. I think this is only the beginning. We can overpass $1 billion in 2024,” he reportedly said. “This is something that is definitely achievable… I think the markets in the Philippines [are] very attractive.”

Cohen also discussed the benefits flowing from the Abraham Accords normalisation agreements which Israel signed with four Arab states in 2020 – which could improve flight connections between Israel and the Philippines, boosting tourism, among other opportunities.

In fact, plans to launch direct flights between Tel Aviv and Manila, which could shave about three hours off travel time given the recent extension of permission for Israeli planes to fly over Saudi and Omani airspaces, were also raised during the trip. 

“Pivot to Asia”

The diplomatic tour of the Philippines and South Korea was part of Israel’s wider focus on Asia. Back in 2017, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced his Government’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, intended to eventually diversify Israeli trade away from its current concentration on America and Europe.

While Israel’s government has changed multiple times since then, this enthusiastic approach to expanding ties and friendships across Asia has not. Israel knows that three of the world’s seven biggest economies are in Asia, and the demand for Israel’s world-class technology and advanced defence equipment is constantly growing.

In 2022, Israel’s top 25 trading partners included seven in Asia: China, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan.  India-Israeli relations especially have developed rapidly in recent years, across both trade and security relations.

The Philippines are definitely part of that new Asian focus, as Cohen’s trip attested.

At the end of his visit, Cohen tweeted a tribute to Quezon, including a picture of himself standing outside the Quezon Heritage Museum, and next to a great-grandson of one of the Jewish survivors who Quezon saved.

“Whoever saves one soul, it is as if he saved the whole world,” he tweeted.

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