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Israel and PNG: A relationship built upon faith

Sep 8, 2023 | Alana Schetzer

PNG Prime Minister James Marape opens the PNG Embassy in Jerusalem with Israeli PM Netanyahu (GPO/Screenshot)
PNG Prime Minister James Marape opens the PNG Embassy in Jerusalem with Israeli PM Netanyahu (GPO/Screenshot)

After some months of anticipation, Papua New Guinea (PNG) opened its embassy in Israel’s capital Jerusalem on September 5, with visiting PNG Prime Minister James Marape declaring it a “milestone moment” for the Christian-majority South Pacific nation.

With a 95% Christian population – and Catholicism forming the largest denomination – Marape made it clear that the religious link with Israel was a significant motivation in choosing Jerusalem as the location for the embassy.

“You [Israel] have been the great custodian of the moral values that were passed for humanity,” Marape said to Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu, who also attended the Embassy opening. “[Jerusalem] has been the universal capital of the nation and people of Israel. For us to call ourselves Christians, paying respect to God will not be complete without recognising that Jerusalem is the universal capital of the people and nation of Israel.”

At the official opening ceremony, Netanyahu also spoke about the shared religious heritage between the people of Israel and PNG: “This is where our values were forged. This is where our prophets prophesied.”

The new PNG Embassy is the first representing a South Pacific nation in the Jewish state since the early 1990s, when Fiji closed its embassy due to budgetary issues. While the majority of embassies are located in Tel Aviv, PNG joins a select few countries – the United States, Kosovo, Guatemala and Honduras – in having theirs in Jerusalem. However, Fiji has flagged plans to also establish a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem – as have Paraguay and some other nations – while Vanuatu has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

PNG has long maintained an honorary consulate near Tel Aviv, and on the Israeli side, relations have been handled by Israel’s embassy in Canberra.

PNG’s decision to locate its embassy in Israel’s capital comes just five years after it voted at the United Nations to condemn the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. News of the embassy opening was confirmed back in February, with the two states reportedly also discussing expanding bilateral economic ties, especially in agricultural technology.

The Papua New Guinea-Israel Jewish Council stated that the new embassy will be a “great benefit” to the diplomatic relationship between the two countries, especially when it comes to “cultural, people-to-people relations and business connections.”

“A close relationship with Israel is essential, as Israel’s expertise in health, agriculture, security, education, and technology can be vital in achieving PNG’s economic development goals.”

 

Limited commerce, but much potential

Israel and PNG established diplomatic relations in 1978, three years after the latter gained independence from Australian governance and became a Commonwealth member state.

Although Israel and PNG have very similar population sizes (Israel is home to 9.3 million people, while PNG has a population of 9.9 million), the latter is still a developing country with a relatively small economy, and trade between the two nations has been limited. In 2021, Israel exported US$743,000 worth of goods, which included washing and bottling machines, and broadcast and agricultural equipment, among other items. PNG exported US$91,000 of goods to Israel during the same time, almost all of which was vanilla.

As with many small island countries, a significant part of PNG’s economy is based on agriculture, and with Israel a world-leader in developing cutting-edge agricultural technologies, their economies complement each other well. Israel continues to provide technological support across food production, water management and solar energy for PNG.

During a meeting with then-Israeli PM Yair Lapid at the United Nations in September 2022, Marape said that his country “can learn a lot from Israel; their internal security, their technology-based agriculture industry that makes them food sufficient as well as exporters of fruits and vegetables to Europe and the world.”

“I want Papua New Guinea to learn from Israel on how they shifted their resources and focus on investment into [a] knowledge-based economy,” he added.

Israeli company Innovative Agro Industry developed an 11-hectare fruit and vegetable farm near Port Moresby in 2013 as a commercial development in partnership with PNG farmers to help ease the country’s reliance on expensive imported food. The farm produces large quantities of affordable fresh produce, including tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicums and lettuces.

Innovative Agro Industry also opened a dairy facility in Port Moresby in 2018, employing 200 locals and producing significantly cheaper milk, yoghurt and ice cream for the local PNG market compared to imports from Australia and New Zealand. The self-sustaining farm of 500 cows grows 80% of its own feed, and employs bore water and solar power.

Since 2011, the Israeli Government – through the Innovative Agriculture Industry Limited (IAIL) – has also provided extensive support for PNG agricultural and energy projects, using sustainable technologies. IAIL currently runs 13 projects throughout PNG, including poultry, frozen vegetables and chips, coffee, and vanilla. This is in addition to the humanitarian aid that Israel has provided, including water purification equipment and 40 generators, following the devastating 7.5 magnitude earthquake in 2018 and essential medical aid in the aftermath of the deadly 1998 tsunami. 

While PNG is a small state, its geographic location – north of Australia and east of Indonesia – has increased its strategic importance. Like many nations in the region, it has a become a battleground between China and the United States for strategic influence. In May 2023, PNG and the United States signed a security pact that included a framework for enhancing PNG’s defence force and increasing regional stability. 

 

A lost tribe?

One unique link between Israel and PNG is the Gogodala people, who live in the Western Province of PNG, and have long claimed to be the descendants of a lost tribe of ancient Israel. The University of Adelaide investigated this claim in a study published in The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology in 2011; the DNA results were inconclusive but the study said that “the claim that Gogodala are one of the disparate peoples of Israel, and thus potential citizens of that nation, has much salience.”

“Many Gogodala, both urban and rural, are convinced that test results will confirm what has already been substantiated by ancestral narratives that detail the migratory route of the ancestral beings,” researcher Alison Dundon wrote.

Many Gogodala still embrace Judaism, which has developed uniquely within the tribe over the years. Some members wear kippahs (skull caps) and prayer shawls, speak Hebrew and celebrate Jewish holidays.

 

Israel’s increasing focus on Asia and the Pacific

Israel has been quietly but assertively pursuing stronger economic and diplomatic ties across Asia over the past decade, including a focus on building alliances among the South Pacific Islander nations. Many of those nations are Christian and have communities that are keen to strengthen ties with the Holy Land; former PNG Deputy PM Charles Abel once called Israel a “special country to Papua New Guineans for religious reasons.”

The International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem has played a pivotal role in growing these relationships across the South Pacific. The group works to connect Christian organisations across 95 countries with Israel, and also helps fight antisemitism. A delegation of pastors from multiple Christian groups travelled to Israel for the PNG Embassy official opening.

Some of these small Pacific island nations have become among Israel’s strongest allies at the United Nations General Assembly. While PNG’s voting record at the UN has not historically been especially pro-Israel, Port Moresby did join Israel in December 2022 in opposing the controversial General Assembly resolution requesting the International Court of Justice issue an advisory opinion on the legality of Israel’s control over the West Bank. PNG’s then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Justin Tkatchenko, told Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in February that PNG would continue to vote with Israel at the UN.

Days before the Embassy’s official opening, political scientist Professor Steven Ratuva – Director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury – told the ABC that PNG’s decision to locate its embassy in Jerusalem could influence other South Pacific countries on whether they might also recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Ratuva compared Israel’s diplomatic advocacy across the region in recent years to that of China.

“Israel’s bid for recognition would also involve a lot of things like [the] promise of development, like they’ve done for Fiji and other countries in the region as well. And… a lot of things associated with that in terms of the buyout, you know, the… so-called cheque-book diplomacy,” he said. Yet despite his implications, offering economic incentives is a normal part of almost all international diplomacy – including Australia’s own efforts in this region.

Marape – who said that Israel would pay most of the costs of PNG’s embassy for the first two years – has asked Israel to open its own embassy in PNG’s capital of Port Moresby. At the moment, no plans to do so have been announced by Jerusalem.

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