Government News Analysis

Duterte heading for Zion


Another overseas trip is being planned for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. This one is to the Middle East – to Israel where he’ll meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and looks to be roughly scheduled for some time in May. So what’s his purpose?

This trip is being organised at Duterte’s behest; according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, he’d expressed interest to visit Jerusalem, the ancient city of Zion. But this is no site seeing tour – though he’ll be shown the city’s ancient sites while he’s there – Duterte has other things on his mind. Things which are far more pressing; things that Israel, specifically, might be able to help with.

In May he’ll be going to Russia, to meet Russian Federation President, Vladimir Putin, and so it’s possible he could fly to Jerusalem from Moscow on the return leg of the Russia trip. The Philippine and Israeli foreign ministries are now working out the details.

There’s no question that this is a significant trip – the first ever by a Philippine president to the State of Israel. Former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo headed a trade delegation there in 2000 when she was vice president which – along with a five-day visit in 2012 by then-VP, Jejomar Binay – was the highest-ranking visit from the Philippines since diplomatic relations were established between the two nations in 1957.

The only other notable visit by a Philippine Government official was that of Alberto del Rosario who went there in 2014 in his capacity as Foreign Affairs secretary.

As to the why Duterte’s going there, we believe the main reason is to harness Israeli support in his efforts to defeat Islamic extremism back home. After all, no country has greater experience than the Jewish state when it comes to combating terrorism.

Duterte and the Philippine security establishment have become increasingly concerned of late about the growing influence of the Islamic State (IS) of Syria and the Levant among Islamist rebel groups in the large southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

Once virtually a taboo subject – the two former administrations all but denied that IS was a factor in its calculus to defeat Islamic militant groups on their soil – Duterte has brought the issue to centre stage. Back in January he said this: “The problem is ISIS is there and we have been debating for so long. But we are now of the opinion in the Cabinet that the ISIS ideology is here to stay”.

That was the first clear statement from a Philippine president that IS was on the doorstep, and it’s now focusing minds within the Philippines armed forces. And so it should; this is a very different enemy to the one it’s used to dealing with. This is hardcore, ideology-driven extremism which, if it ever takes real root, will not just be a Mindanao problem, it’ll be a national problem.

IS, unlike the small terror groups that operate around the southern and western provinces of Mindanao, isn’t interested in assisting the struggle for a Muslim homeland of Bangsomoro – the proposed autonomous state for the Moro (Muslim) people – it has far bigger plans. It wants to establish a caliphate that stretches the length of maritime Southeast Asia: from Mindanao to southern Thailand.

Furthermore, it won’t be turning down high-value targets as and when they appear in the country’s two other island regions – Luzon and the Visayas. Duterte knows that, his defence minister knows that and army chiefs know that. All this is reason for concern and so it’s not surprising that he’d turn to Israel for help.

There’s also every reason to believe that Duterte and Netanyahu will forge a strong bond. For one thing, they shared a dislike for former US president, Barack Obama, who regularly shunned Netanyahu and criticised Duterte – most famously over the Philippine president’s War on Drugs, an issue the Israeli prime minister is unlikely ever to criticise him over.

The two men have other things in common though – significantly, they’re both passionately protective of their countries’ sovereignties; they’re both nationalists; they both believe in the use of armed force to protect their people and their land, and they’re both prepared to go out on a limb and take international condemnation for the things they believe in. They are, in many ways, fellow travelers.

They also share a common enemy in the form of the mainstream media – both are constant targets by the Western press who regard the leaders as repeated human-rights violators. In the case of Netanyahu over the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as well as his alleged suppression of Palestinians and their rights. In the case of Duterte, over his drugs war and alleged extrajudicial killings which the media link to it.

What’s more, Duterte may have a marker to call in. Last October Netanyahu phoned Duterte – along with other heads of state – to secure support in rejecting a United Nations’ resolution which omitted any reference to Jewish ties to Judaism’s holiest Jerusalem site, the Temple Mount, referring to the hilltop complex as Haram al-Sharif, the name by which Muslims know it.

In Israel it’s believed that Duterte acceded to Netanyahu’s request – something else these two men share is their deep felt suspicions and distrust of the UN. Furthermore, while the international media had a field day over Duterte’s remarks last September – “Hitler massacred three million Jews. There are three million drug addicts and I would be happy to slaughter them”. – there was far less breast-beating in Israel.

And the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s response to press queries about a visit from the Philippine president in the light of those remarks shows that they’d inferred nothing anti-Semitic about them. “There are many controversial leaders in the world and many countries that criticise them,” a Ministry spokesman said. “Duterte is not boycotted by the world, there are no sanctions against him and he has visited a number of countries since taking office”.

Moreover, Duterte – whose former wife, Elizabeth Zimmerman is ethnically Jewish – atoned for what he said. On 4 October, on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, he attended the Jewish Community of the Philippines’ synagogue in Makati, in Manila, where he apologised to the Jewish congregation, saying he deeply regretted offending the Jewish community.

Defeating Islamic terrorism, however, is a shared goal and Jerusalem is likely to do all it can to assist Manila. The two nations already have close security ties but Duterte will likely want to strengthen them further. He is also possibly looking to secure Israeli arms and surveillance equipment which he’s praised for their high quality and precision.

In 2014, the Philippines purchased 28 light armoured vehicles from Israeli defence company, Elbit Systems. Costing US$19.7 million, they came equipped with 76 mm artillery cannons and night-vision and fire-control systems. In 2016, the Philippine Defense Department entered into a contract with a subsidiary of state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries to acquire radar equipment.

One more thing that we can think of that’s likely to be discussed on this trip is investment – both in terms of cash and expertise. More likely than not, this would concern Philippine agriculture; specifically in sourcing effective irrigation and water-management systems to aid the Philippine’s embattled rice sector. These are areas of technology in which Israel excels.

Certainly Philippine-Israeli relations are solid – as Duterte has said, “We have excellent relations”. They also have history that predates the opening of their respective embassies in Tel Aviv and Manila. In 1947, the Philippines was among the 33 nations that supported the UN resolution that led to the partition of Palestine and the creation of he Israeli state.

But the ties go right back to the late 19th century when the German emperor, Otto von Bismarck, send a squadron to Manila in an attempt to replace the Spanish as the country’s colonial overlord, only to be beaten by the Americans following the signing of the 1898 Treaty of Paris which switched control from Spain to the US.

However, the real friendship started in the mid 1930s and went on for a decade as German refugees fled persecution during the rise of Nazism and the Second World War. These were predominantly Jews that had been stranded in Shanghai which was the under the occupation of Germany’s ally, Japan.

So given that last fact, it’s not unreasonable for the Philippines to seek help from the Jewish nation as it becomes threatened by an extremist foe – one that’s declared its intention of creating a wilayat (a province, or canton) of the Islamic State.