Ehud Barak.
Ehud Barak. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Last week Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited the air show in Singapore, Israel greatest ally in south-east Asia. Barak did not know that at a distance of only some tens of kilometers from there, in neighboring Malaysia, his name was the subject of a mutual mudslinging battle between the opposition and the ruling coalition in the run-up to elections in the Muslim state.

In the political battlefield stands an exchange of letters between the then Prime Minister Barak at the end of the 1990s, and Mahathir Mohamad, who was Prime Minister of Malaysa at the time. The existence of the letters themselves was a secret, although they were revealed recently by the leader of the opposition in Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim.

Ibrahaim revealed the existence of the letters as part of his attempt to defend himself against attacks by the ruling party, that claimed that e supports normalization of ties with Israel and denies the rights of the Palestinians. Ibrahim, who announced that if he was elected as prime minister he would lead dramatic reform in the state, was asked in a “Wall Street Journal” interview when he would establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

Some refuse to recognize the state of Israel,” he said, “but I think our policy should be clear – protect the security [of Israel] but you must be as firm in protecting the legitimate interests of the Palestinians.”

Sources in the ruling party rushed to attack Ibrahim, claiming that he was giving up on Malaysian principles when he agreed to recognize Israel. Ibrahim claimed, in his defense, that he supports a two-state solution in accordance with UN decisions, but that he would not establish diplomatic relations with Israel, until Israel truly supports the ambitions of the Palestinian people.

The spiritual leader of the opposition party, Nik Abdul Aziz invited Ibrahim for a talk to clarify the issue. At the end of the talk, he announced that the party will never recognize Israel.

“It is forbidden to accept the existence of Israel, all the more when the Israeli authorities engage in the endless torture and killing of the Palestinian people, including children, women and the elderly,” said the spiritual leader.

Following the political storm, Anwar Ibrahim came out with a counter-attack, claiming that the ruling party in Malaysia is the one that is normalizing relations with Israel. According to him, the current administration has trade ties with Israel and allowed to cargo ships owned by the Israeli shipping company “Zim” to dock in the country on February 16.

Ibrahim even revealed that the former head of the ruling party Mahathir Mohamad engaged in an exchange of letters with Ehud Barak, when the two of them served as Prime Ministers of their respective countries at the end of the 1990s. In response, Mohamad confirmed that he did send the letter to Ehud Barak, but claimed that it expressed Malaysia’s refusal to recognize Israel.

“Barak was the one to initiate the first correspondence in order to establish Malaysia’s stand toward the Israel-Palestine conflict,” Mohamad said.

"I responded saying that Malaysia will not have any ties with them (Israel) for as long as they refused to acknowledge the rights of the Palestinians.”

Mohamad, who today stands at the head of a non-governmental organization that is involved, amongst other thigns, in organizing flotillas to the Gaza Strip, approached the incumbent Prime Minister, Najib Razak, asking to publish the letters in order to prove that he did not concede anything to Ehud Barak.

At first, the Prime Minister disapproved of publishing the letters, but in the face of the mounting political pressure, he announced on Sunday that Barak’s letter to Mohamad, and his letter in response, will be published on Monday, or Tuesday.

"This will enable the people to understand the reason why Dr. Mahathir Mohamad wrote the letter was to champion the Palestinian struggle to establish a sovereign nation," the prime minister said.

Razak said the letter showed Mahathir Mohamad's concern in the West Asia peace process, and that its content was in line with the government's policy then and now.

He said the issue had been manipulated by the opposition to raise suspicions over the government's position, in order to divert the people's attention from the opposition leader's assertion of his support for Israel.

I approached Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and asked him if he remembers the correspondence with Malaysia's Prime Minister at the end of the 1990s. Barak was not aware of the current political scandal in Malaysia, but he did remember the letters.

“In Barak’s letter there was praise for the Malaysian people and for the Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad over his courage in the international arena,” one of Barak’s advisors told me.

“Mahathir wrote in response that he hoped that the Israeli leadership would have the courage to take the corresponding steps in order to achieve peace with the Palestinians. The content of the letters was general and there was nothing there that could embarrass Mahathir.”