Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made waves during a four-day trip to Israel, a symbolically significant tour in light of Israel’s long and strong strategic bond with the United States and the Philippines recent strategic re-engagement with its American treaty ally.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, as well as the 28,000-strong Filipino community in Israel, a large number of whom work as caregivers and temporary workers, warmly welcomed the Filipino leader, the first ever to visit the Middle Eastern nation.
“We mark that this is the first visit by a President of the Philippines in the history of Israel. It is deeply appreciated,” Netanyahu said during his meeting with Duterte at the premier’s office in Jerusalem.
Israel’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, said in a statement the visit underscored the “enormous potential for developing and strengthening relations.” Duterte left Israel for Jordan earlier today (September 5).
Strategic cooperation and arms sales were reportedly high on the bilateral agenda. News reports said Duterte and Netanyahu signed new tourism, labor and defense deals, though no details of the agreements were immediately available.
In 2017, Israel sold the Philippines US$21 million worth of military hardware, including anti-tank equipment and radars. That marked a big increase on the US$4 million sold in 2016. Israel has also sold assault rifles to the Philippine National Police that have been used in Duterte’s deadly anti-drug war.
More arms sales could be on the horizon as the Philippines launches upon a multi-billion dollar military modernization campaign.
Duterte’s administration is now exploring large-scale procurements of advanced weaponries to tackle domestic security threats related to insurgency and terrorism in the wake of last year’s Islamic State-backed five-month devastating siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi.
Duterte is also known to be interested in seeking Israeli operational and intelligence gathering assistance in dealing with its rising transnational terrorism problem, marked by the rise of an assortment of Islamic State-affiliated militant groups in its volatile southern island of Mindanao.
During his trip, Duterte stated his preference for Israeli armaments because weapons purchased from the US, China and Germany come with restraints, but that he did not see why that would be a problem with Israel, local media reported.
Security analysts believe Islamic State fighters are regrouping in Mindanao in preparation for another major assault aimed ultimately at establishing a caliphate in the Philippines.
Despite those deals, the Filipino leader did not opt to follow in the footsteps of close Israeli allies such as the US which have recently relocated their Israel-based embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Those moves have sparked protests across various Arab nations.
At the same time, Duterte’s visit did spark outrage, especially among the liberal mainstream media and human rights groups who criticized Duterte’s scorched earth anti-drug campaign and his previous insensitive remarks in relation to the Holocaust.
In 2016, Duterte appeared to liken himself to Hitler by insinuating he took inspiration from the Nazi leader’s mass murder of up to six million Jews during World War II in prosecuting his lethal war on drugs. At the time, he said he would be “happy to slaughter” three million drug addicts.
Rights groups have claimed the lethal campaign has caused upwards of 12,000 extrajudicial killings. Filipino officials have denied any extrajudicial deaths in the anti-drug campaign, claiming that only 4,500 suspects were killed for firing first at officers who shot back in self-defense.
Duterte had earlier made an unprecedented public apology over his references to Hitler.
During the Rosh Hashanah Jewish New Year celebration in October 2016, he visited the Beit Yaacov synagogue in Manila where he said, “Please accept my apology. It will never happen again. That is why I am here, to say I’m sorry because I respect the Jewish people.”
Many back in Israel, however, were unconvinced. In an op-ed, the founding editor of the influential Times of Israel newspaper, David Horovitz, wrote that the Filipino leader “has no place here [in Israel].” Before his arrival to Israel, the influential Haaretz newspaper accused Netanyahu of “selling out Israeli values for dubious allies.”
“Under the shadow of Duterte’s visit, Israel once again proves it’s willing to overlook leaders’ human rights violations for the sake of opportunities for arms deals and defense contracts,” the newspaper said.
With widespread criticism of his drug campaign, Duterte has studiously avoided visiting Western nations. He has snubbed US President Donald Trump’s invitation for him to visit the White House, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)-Australia summit in Sydney in March, and multilateral summits in Europe, including the G20 summit held in Germany last year and the Asia-Europe Meeting summit to be held in Brussels later this year.
Israel was thus arguably Duterte’s first official visit to a Western-style liberal democracy, where he predictably faced heated media criticism. Much of his visit was thus deliberately closed to the media in a state attempt to shield the Filipino leader from critical news coverage and media portrayals that could have upset the tour’s cordial tone.
Media were allowed to cover his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where Duterte struck a somber note by condemning mass murder and dictatorship. In a speech, he notably walked back his previous positive reference to Hitler.
“I could not imagine a country obeying an insane leader, and I could not ever fathom the spectacle of the human being going into a killing spree, murdering old men, women and children. I hope this will not happen again,” Dutetre said in reference to Hitler. “There is always a lesson to learn: that despots and leaders who show insanity, they should be disposed of at the first instance.”
Seemingly overtaken by his visit to the so-called Holy Land, he also reaffirmed his belief in a “supreme God that my father and mother passed into me.” The comment was a push back against critics who have questioned his Christian faith amid his heated public spats with the Philippine Catholic Church and a controversial comment he made this year questioning God’s intelligence.
Duterte has recently shown certain signs of remorse, witnessed in his unexpected apology for his profanity-laced insulting remarks about then US President Barack Obama and reversing his reference to God as stupid. He was seen crying tears of apparent joy amid the warm welcome he received from the Filipino community in Israel.
Back home, however, few believe that Duterte’s visit to Israel’s Holy Land will change his outlook or tactics, as the authoritarian leader continues to emasculate his country’s fragile democratic institutions and punish without contrition his dissenters and critics in the mold of the despots he rhetorically condemned while in Jerusalem.