President Rodrigo Duterte will bring a delegation of 150 businessmen and 15 government officials on his trip to Israel this week, in hopes of reaffirming the ties between the two countries.
“I leave today for landmark visits that underscore our vision for our country—a responsible member of the world community—a Philippines that is a friend to all, an enemy to no one,” said the President in his departure statement Sunday afternoon.
Duterte, who was criticized in 2016 for comparing the Jews to the victims of the campaign against illegal drugs, said he responded to the call of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We have about 28,000 Filipinos in Israel and there are 48,000 Filipinos in Jordan. And you know, without mentioning anything, there’s a volatile situation there and we have to be sure that our citizens are fully protected,” said Duterte, who promised to bring several retiring military officials as a “gift” for serving the country.
“I shall seek to have a robust relationship that looks forward to broader cooperation on a broad range of mutually important areas—defense and security, law enforcement, economic development, trade [and] investments and labor,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Duterte’s three-day visit “symbolizes the strong, warm ties” between the two countries and the potential for developing and strengthening those relations.
“The Philippine President will be accompanied by a large delegation of ministers, including the ministers of foreign affairs, national defense, trade and industry, agriculture, internal security, science and technology, labor and employment, tourism and transportation. Senior senators will also be part of the delegation,” MFA spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said in a statement.
Nahshon said Duterte’s visit will mark several important events such as the 80-year anniversary of the Philippines opening its doors to the Jewish refugees in the late 1930s, the 70-year anniversary of the Philippines’ support of United Nations Resolution 181, paving the way for the creation of the State of Israel, and 60-year anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Philippines.
“One of the important subjects to be discussed is the opening of a direct flight route between Manila and Ben Gurion Airport,” said Nahshon, saying that direct flights will bring a rise in the number of Filipino tourists going to Israel, particularly Christians wanting to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
Nahshon said other agreements to be discussed or signs include one that would regulate the employment of thousands of Filipino caregivers.
“The agreement will protect the workers’ rights, ensure equal and fair treatment of them, and cancel all the fees that until now they have been forced to pay to intermediate agents,” he said.
Nahshon also said there are agreements waiting to be signed in science and technology, promotion of investments, agreements between chambers of commerce, and the environment.
The official delegation includes: Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, Labor and Employment Secretary Silvestre Bello III, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque, Special Assistant to the President Christopher Go, Political Adviser Francis Tolentino, Senator Richard Gordon, Interior and Local Government officer in charge Eduardo Año, and Philippine Coast Guard commandant Rear Admiral Elson Hermogino.
The Palace has already said that public funds will be used to finance Duterte’s trip to Israel and Jordan, but said the benefits would outweigh the cost.
Duterte is set to arrive Sunday for a visit to Israel and Jordan, pursuing a pivot away from his nation’s long-time reliance on American military hardware and backing.
The four-day stay in Israel is the first by a Philippine leader in more than 60 years of diplomatic ties between the two nations, even though their links go back to Manila sheltering Jews during the Holocaust.
Duterte’s visit has generated a lot of attention, powered both by his penchant for foul-mouthed statements—including likening himself to Hitler—and his internationally condemned drug crackdown that has killed thousands.
Duterte, accompanied by an entourage including soldiers and police, will sit down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hold an event with some of the thousands of Filipino migrant workers in Israel.
“We assign great importance to this visit, which symbolizes the strong, warm ties between our two peoples,” Israel’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Duterte has pivoted the Philippines away from its former colonial master the United States and toward warmer diplomatic and business ties with China and Russia.
The US and Canada have both had military hardware deals fall apart with the Philippines due to concerns over Duterte’s drug war. But so far sales with Israel have gone smoothly.
“[The visit] is for President Duterte to look for an alternative market for... weapons for our armed forces as well as for the police,” Henelito Sevilla, an international relations expert at University of the Philippines, said.
Israel is among the world’s top arms dealers, with nearly 60 percent of its defense exports going to the Asia Pacific region, according to Israeli defense ministry data.
The Philippines emerged as a significant new customer in 2017 for Israel, with sales of radar and anti-tank equipment worth $21 million.
There could be far bigger deals on the way as Manila plans a multi-billion dollar overhaul of its armed forces. Duterte has been dismissive of American sales overtures, saying he does not need US fighter jets or submarines.
Manila says the trip is expected to yield signed agreements on defense as well as labor, which is one of the Philippines’ top exports.
Some 10-million Filipinos work abroad and send home money that is a lifeline to the economy. Manila is keen to ink agreements that protect conditions and pay for the workers, who are seen as national heroes at home.
Though the Philippines has a special bond with Israel for giving refuge to some 1,300 Jews fleeing the Holocaust, Duterte drew global condemnation for comparing himself to Hitler in 2016.
“Hitler massacred three-million Jews. Now there are three-million drug addicts [in the Philippines]. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he said. Most mainstream historians say six million Jews died in the Holocaust.
Duterte later apologized to the Jewish community over his remarks, which he said were aimed at critics who had likened him to the Nazi leader.
Just over a year later the Philippines abstained from a UN vote rebuking the United States for moving its embassy to Jerusalem. Palestinians see the eastern part of the disputed city as the capital of their future state.
The Philippines was reportedly among a handful of nations considering following the Americans’ move, but Manila has issued repeated denials.
“This is actually not a topic of discussion,” Foreign Undersecretary Ernesto Abella told journalists at a pre-visit briefing.
Duterte heads to Jordan on Sept. 5, where he is expected to meet with King Abdullah II. With AFP