Rotem PNG June 2012
Israeli Ambassador to Australia with locals in Papua New Guinea, taking part in the Foreign Ministry's mission to make friends for Israel in the Pacific. Photo by Courtesty of Israel Embassy, Canberra
Text size

SYDNEY- Israel is bolstering its presence in the Pacific region with the appointment of a diplomat to strengthen relations with a cluster of island nations, many of them among Israel’s most loyal supporters – after the United States – at the United Nations.

Jonathan Zadka, a diplomat from Israel’s embassy in Tokyo, is scheduled to relocate to Canberra next month in what appears to be a sign of growing engagement in a region that includes Australia and New Zealand. But the move comes amid calls for Jerusalem to “ratchet up its presence” in Asia.

“They’re obviously going to be pre-occupied in the West but what they have to do is devote more resources towards the East and to develop the already solid bases they have there,” Dr Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, an Australian-based Jewish organization engaged in bridge-building between Israel and Asia, told Haaretz this week.

Rubenstein, who frequently leads high-profile Asian delegations to Israel, said the foreign ministry “has understood the importance of Asia for a while.”

But he added: “Times have now changed. The bottom line is there’s a great diplomatic opportunity and now is the time to ratchet up its presence.”

Ruth Kahanoff, the deputy director-general of the foreign ministry’s Asia-Pacific department, recently admitted that for too long Israel “did not pay enough attention” to Asia.

But in an interview with the monthly Jewish Times Asia, she said, “Finally, it is happening. We are looking East. The center of the world economy is clearly moving in the direction of Asia and you have the biggest populations here and the biggest growth in economies, and this is so when the West, particularly the U.S., is struggling with its economic difficulties.”

Since 2006, AIJAC and the American Jewish Committee have co-organized several annual visits to Israel for government officials, journalists and academics from Indonesia, India, Thailand, Vietnam and The Philippines.   

'The moral minority'

“There’s a reservoir of great interest and even fascination with Israel [in Asia],” Rubenstein said, pointing to its reputation as a “start-up nation” excelling in water, medicine, communications and hi-tech. “There is no inherent animosity in the region.”

That appears to be the case with Indonesia, even though the world’s most populous Muslim nation has no formal diplomatic ties with Israel. But in neighboring Malaysia, while there is “some grudging admiration for Israel,” Rubenstein says they are “the most resistant and difficult in terms of further developing ties.”

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak is “much more pragmatic” than former PM Mahathir Mohamad – who in 2010 claimed Jews had to be “periodically massacred” in Europe and that there was “strong evidence” 9/11 was a hoax. But hostility towards Israel is “still caught up in the political narrative,” according to Dr Rubenstein, making it “very difficult to break through.”

By contrast, not only is there little or no animosity towards Israel in the South Pacific islands, there’s huge affinity for the Jewish state, in part because many islanders are devoutly Christian.

Such is their pro-Israel posture, diplomats have dubbed some of the Pacific islands that steadfastly back Jerusalem at the UN – Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru – “the moral minority.” 


But those morals are being tested. In 2009, Iran reportedly bribed the Solomon Islands to vote against Israel at the UN, prompting Michael Ronen, Israel’s roving ambassador to the South Pacific, to counter: “We don’t offer money in exchange for support.”

Critics, however, accuse Israel, among many other nations, of “checkbook diplomacy” – using foreign aid to curry favor, and ultimately votes, in the international arena. “Israel has contributed significantly in medical and agricultural technology [to the Pacific islands] – not mere donations, but a commitment toward the region’s development," Ronen told Haaretz this week.

Like Iran, the UAE also tried buying a Pacific island’s vote at the UN. Last December, Palau’s president, Johnson Toribiong, told Israeli newspapers he had been offered $50 million by the UAE to vote against Israel. He retorted: “We told them: ‘Forget it. We will not vote against Israel for anything in the world.’”

It is against this backdrop that Zadka, who will report to Ronen, will operate. It is understood he will be assisted by two natives – most likely from Fiji and either Samoa or Tonga.

Zadka’s appointment was welcomed by Israel’s two envoys in the region, Yuval Rotem in Canberra, who is also non-resident ambassador for Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and Shemi Tzur in Wellington, who is accredited to Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands.


“The Pacific has a growing role internationally and we want to be part of this,” Rotem, who arrived in Canberra in 2007, told Haaretz, noting that China and Russia have also recently shown interest in the Pacific islands.


Israel’s strong bilateral relationship with Australia is pivotal, he added. “Australia is important to us as a gateway to Pacific as well as to Asia … because Australia is a Pacific power and also an Asian power.”

Signs of strain

Although Australia’s major political leaders have been predominantly unwavering supporters of Israel, public opinion does not necessarily reflect the view from Canberra.

The recent BBC global poll, for example, found 65 percent of Australian respondents viewed Israel negatively. Even in the corridors of power, there have been signs of strain. Former foreign minister Kevin Rudd urged PM Julia Gillard, albeit unsuccessfully, to abstain on the UN vote on Palestinian statehood, reportedly as part of a strategy to help win Australia a seat next year on the Security Council. And some commentators claim the rise of the Greens, now a junior partner in the Labor-led government, has given greater voice and political traction to the pro-Palestinian camp.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand’s bilateral relations are slowly thawing from the deep freeze triggered by the 2004 passports scandal in which two Israelis, believed to be Mossad agents, were jailed for trying to illegally obtain a Kiwi passport. Then Labor PM Helen Clark accused Israel of “a breach of New Zealand sovereignty” before severing high-level diplomatic ties until Israel apologized a year later.

The election of the Conservatives in 2008 led by John Key, the son of a Jewish refugee who fled Austria on the eve of the Holocaust, has been a significant factor in the rapprochement, as has the reopening of the Israeli embassy in Wellington after an eight-year hiatus due to cost-cutting measures by the foreign ministry.

The Israeli Consulate in Sydney was also shut down in 2002, sparking outrage among Australian Jewish leaders who countered by offering, unsuccessfully, to raise the requisite funds to keep the mission open.