FRESH AIR

Israel and Fiji: A Shared Interest in Peace and Fighting Climate Change

Jul 12, 2023 | Alana Schetzer

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Israel and Fiji may seem like an unusual pairing, but since diplomatic relations were established in 1970, the Middle Eastern and Pacific Ocean countries have forged partnerships across security and peacekeeping, and especially issues related to climate change.

The latest step in their relationship was the announcement in June that Fiji will establish its own embassy in Israel, most likely in Jerusalem. In a statement, the Fijian Government said that as the world returned to a ‘new normal’ following the COVID-19 pandemic, “there is a need to comprehensively expand Fiji’s global presence.” Fiji currently has a consulate in Tel Aviv.

The establishment of a Fijian embassy in Israel is dependent on the 2023-24 budget, however doing so was a firm election commitment of the ‘kingmaker’ of the three coalition partners of the new Fijian Government – the Social Democratic Liberal Party – which formed government with Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka’s People’s Alliance and the National Federation Party in December 2022.

While the foundations of Fiji and Israel’s relationship were built on the latter’s contributions to the United Nations peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East, it is their shared battle against climate change on which they have found common ground.

Fiji is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change and related disasters. Rising sea levels, floods, landslides and an increase in tropical cyclones are already having devastating consequences, forcing people to move further away from the coast.

Some 16,018km away in the Middle East, Israel is generally hot and arid, with half of it being desert. Summer 2022 was one of the hottest on record. Overall, Israel is warming at twice the global average.

Over the past decade, Israel and Fiji have cooperated extensively on fighting the impacts of climate change, with Israel’s world-renowned and ground-breaking technology at the centre of that cooperation. In 2017, Fiji and Israel’s agency for international development, MASHAV, signed a Memorandum of Understanding on agriculture, which, according to the then-Fijian Government, features “more tailored approaches to crop production and farming practices that are better suited to the changing weather conditions caused by climate change.”

Israel previously had an embassy in Fiji’s capital, Suva, but closed it in the early 1990s due to budgetary constraints. Until 2008, Israel’s Embassy in Australia was the official diplomatic channel between the two countries, but since then, Israel has been served by a non-resident Ambassador to the Pacific Island States. That role has been filled for the past two years by Roi Rosenblit, who labelled relations as “great and improving”.

“Israel and Fiji have always been very good friends since Fiji’s independence (in October 1970). We don’t have any issues between us and we have many things in common,” Rosenblit says. “I think Fijians like Israel very much; most of them are Christians and they have an affinity to the Holy Land and we do have many cooperations in areas like agriculture.”

A “secret ingredient” in the relationship between the two countries that many other countries do not have, Rosenblit says, is the fact that “many, many Fijians” have had the opportunity to experience and know Israel up close, due to their peacekeeping duties.

“And we have the advantage of getting to know the Fijians, too, and when they are in the Golan Heights or at the Israeli-Lebanon border, or Sinai, they get the chance to visit us,” he explains.

The first major step in the relationship occurred in 1978 when Fijian service women and men were first sent to United Nations peacekeeping missions at the Israeli-Egyptian border, and later the Israeli-Syrian border. Fiji has remained a consistent presence in UN peacekeeping troops ever since, and is the biggest contributor of service women and men per capita.

Despite its small population of just under one million people, Fiji’s ongoing UN peacekeeping deployments are in fact a savvy political move that has allowed it to develop strong global relationships, as well as reap financial benefits. It’s also a mark of national pride, as Fiji considers itself a ‘peacekeeping’ nation.

The relationship between Israel and Fiji has been mostly smooth, with the only real bump being in 2016, when then-President of the United Nations 71st General Assembly, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, caused outrage when he wore a keffiyeh-style scarf with the colours of the Palestinian flag while addressing the assembly on “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People”.

Rosenblit labelled it a “minor stumbling block,” compared to the overall strength of relations.

However, Fiji’s voting record at the UN General Assembly tells another story. Since 2015, Fiji has supported 71 per cent of anti-Israel resolutions, never voted in support of Israel, and abstained from voting on 29 per cent of them. Another Pacific neighbour, New Zealand, has an even bleaker voter history than Fiji – zero votes in support of Israel, 78 per cent against Israel, and 22 per cent abstention. This is compared to Australia’s voting record, which is significantly warmer at 41 per cent in favour of Israel, 20 per cent against Israel, and 40 per cent abstaining.

However, it hasn’t stopped the relationship from flourishing across government and private agreements. This cooperation has occurred in conjunction with Israel’s aid program to Fiji, which included providing medical care, solar panels, and portable generators. Following the devastating Cyclone Winston in 2016 – which was the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, and which claimed 44 lives and impacted more than 60 per cent of Fiji’s population – Israel sent a team of experts to assist in rebuilding the homes and infrastructure that were destroyed.

This year, the countries announced a new pledge advancing that cooperation across peacekeeping, sustainable development, agriculture, technology, business, and investment. It followed the establishment of the ‘Israel-Pacific Food Security Alliance,’ which creates long-term training and programs in the region.

The strength of the relationship was on display in 2020 during a meeting between then-Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and then-Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, when the latter expressed his country’s deep appreciation of Fiji’s contribution to peacekeeping in the Middle East.

Bainimarama added that despite the small sizes of the two countries, both used their respective voices to drive positive global change.

“Fiji and Israel have young, dynamic populations. Our youth know the value of innovative, entrepreneurial thinking and they are the potential of partnerships to generate prosperity,” he said.

It’s notable that trade is rarely raised in government-issued statements between Israel and Fiji, but given the latter’s tiny population, it’s probably not surprising: bilateral trade is comparably compact. Fijian exports to Israel were US$492,000 in 2022, with the largest sector being pharmaceutical products, followed by beverages and wood products. Israel’s exports were twice that, at US$880,000, thanks to machinery, electronic equipment, medical equipment, and aluminium.

There is another, more religious-driven reason for establishing an embassy other than just expanding “Fiji’s global presence”. Just after Fiji’s election in December, Viliame Gavoka – leader of the Social Democratic Liberal Party – confirmed his party’s non-negotiable demands in forming a coalition government included, as mentioned above, establishing a Fijian embassy in Jerusalem, as well as free university education and indigenous Fijian rights.

“Fiji is predominantly a Christian country and it has always been the wish of the Christian community to have a presence in the holy land,” Gavoka said. “Christian principles will be the mainstay of our policies.”

The party applauded the United States’ decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2018.

Advocating for an embassy in Israel over one in another country such as Ethiopia, in the Fijian Parliament in 2022, Gavoka said that “Israel has a lot more in common with Fiji, our link through the religions in Fiji, Christianity in particular and of course, the advancements that people have seen in the State of Israel which could benefit Fiji in a big way.

There has been no official talk since the announcement in June about where the embassy will be located; Rosenblit says the Israeli Government hasn’t spoken to the Fijian Government about the location yet.

In terms of when Israel might open an embassy in Fiji again, Rosenblit says that “We hope to have that soon, and maybe an embassy in Papua New Guinea at some point.”

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