On the 2nd of September, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will begin the first of a six day Middle East visit where he will meet with the Israeli and Jordanian heads of state and government. This is an historic first for a Philippine leader even though the Philippines has a long and perhaps unlikely history with both Israelis and major Arab powers.
The Philippines is remembered as a nation that openly welcomed European Jews fleeing the Holocaust and as such, Duterte will dedicate a memorial in Israel which honours the generous spirit of the Philippine nation. Likewise, as oil wealth transformed the Arab world, after 1973 in particular, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) played and continue to play an important part in helping to build and modernise Arab economies that became suddenly flush with cash as oil prices continued to climb after the early 1970s.
Of course, given the dire human rights situation in Palestine, any visit to Israel by any foreign leader is necessarily controversial. Already, the Israeli left have begun making fools of themselves by complaining about Duterte’s war on drugs. The implication of such voices is that narco-terrorists trying to destroy society are somehow more sacred than Palestinians fighting for genuine human rights and justice on their own land. Such ridiculous statements only bring shame upon those who make them.
But moreover, as a country with a Muslim (Moro) population in Mindanao which includes members of Duterte’s extended family, any Philippine President would have to conduct a highly skilled diplomatic balancing act when visiting Tel Aviv and nearby cities. Duterte however is clearly up to the task as he has proved that whether dealing with fellow ASEAN members, China, the United States, Russia, Japan or Korea, the Philippine President is able to defend his own country’s interests while forging respectful partnerships in both expected and unexpected places.
While some activists have already voiced their concern that Duterte is visiting Israel at a time of suffering among Palestinians, the fact of the matter is that Chinese and Russian officials have relations with both the Arab states of the Middle East and with Israel and so too does Singapore with its own sizeable Muslim population. In the 1980s, the United States openly armed Israel’s Iraqi rival while until 2011 the US also had fairly normal relations with Syria. Likewise, while Turkey and Israel have had many disagreements in recent years, Turkey remains the first Islamic majority country to maintain consistent diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.
Against this background, if the three superpowers are allowed to have relations with both Israel and multiple Arab states and if wealthy ASEAN member Singapore is able to do the same, those saying that The Philippines should be any different are guilty of projecting a paternalist colonial mentality onto The Philippines that they would not dare to do in respect of China, Russia, Singapore or Turkey.
Rodrigo Duterte is not an artist, a businessman nor an activist. Rodrigo Duterte is the head of a sovereign nation and as such it is not only his right but his obligation to meet with as many foreign leaders as possible. In meeting with the leaders of both Israel and Jordan – the country whose King is the custodian of the holy mosques at the Haram esh-Sharif, Duterte has proved once again that he is able to stand proudly as a representative of his nation both at home and abroad.
No matter what one’s views of the Israel-Palestine conflict are, Duterte is doing the same thing that the leaders of more powerful and wealthier nations have done for decades. If they can do it so can Duterte. To suggest anything less is an insult to the Philippine nation.