The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, landed in Israel on Sunday evening for a four-day official visit. Hundreds of Filipino admirers awaited Duterte's arrival in Jerusalem, waving flags and singing the Filipino national anthem.
This is the first visit by a Philippine president since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1957. Following his stay in Israel, Duterte will continue on to Jordan.
According to his official schedule, the Philippine president, who is known for his highly controversial comments and who has been accused of egregious human rights violations in his country, will be having lunch with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and also meet with President Reuven Rivlin. He will participate in an event involving Filipinos working in Israel, tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum and the Old City of Jerusalem, and also pay a visit to a monument to the actions taken by the Philippines to open its borders to Jews during the Holocaust.
In addition, however, the visit includes other aspects that have not been made public, including a visit to a display of advanced weapons and equipment arranged by the Defense Ministry, and the signing of an oil exploration license that is being granted to the Israeli-owned company Ratio Petroleum.
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The Israeli company was the successful bidder three years ago for an offshore oil exploration license issued through the Philippine Energy Ministry, but the exploration concession has been awaiting Duterte’s signature for the past six months, a delay caused in part by reform efforts and criticism regarding permit and taxation policies.
As a result, senior executives at Ratio Petroleum sought assistance from the Israeli Foreign Ministry to facilitate the signing during Duterte’s visit, Haaretz has learned. The Philippine media have reported that the exploration zone holds major potential.
Ratio has a 15-percent stake in Israel’s Leviathan offshore natural gas production site. Overseas, Ratio Petroleum is involved in exploration and production of oil and natural gas and has licensing rights and options in a number of locations including Guyana, Surinam, Malta and Ireland.
Duterte’s public schedule contains no mention of events related to arms transactions despite the fact that several such events are expected to be on the president’s itinerary, including the display of advanced weapons and equipment. Over the years, Israel has obscured the nature and scope of its military exports to a number of countries around the world, but websites and official Facebook pages from the Philippines have disclosed a large number of arms purchases in the past.
The Philippine embassy in Israel has also prepared a separate itinerary for a delegation of army and police retirees who are joining the president in what was described as their exposure to current developments involving Israeli defense equipment. The embassy has not provided details, however.
The sale of Israeli-made weapons to the Duterte regime has come up against public criticism as a result of the human rights violations in the Philippines, and as a result of comments by Duterte that have sparked outrage. A group of Israelis plan to demonstrate outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem during his visit there. At the top of the list of accusations against Duterte is the bloody war against drugs in the country, which has cost thousands of lives.
The Philippine president is accused by the international community of killing civilians, but he has boasted about it, claiming in the past, for example, that he had pushed a man out of a helicopter and had shot at people in the streets. The Philippine Foreign Ministry is aware of the plans for the protest and last week stated that Israel, like the Philippines, is a liberal country and it is therefore possible that some groups would wish to express their opinion, but that the president is prepared for that.
In September 2016, Duterte compared the violent campaign that he was pursuing against drug dealers and users to the Holocaust, saying that he would kill a large number of addicts as Hitler had killed a large number of Jews. “Critics compare me to Hitler’s cousin,” he said. “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews ... there’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
He later apologized for his comments and visited a synagogue in the Philippines, saying he never intended to hurt anyone and that the insult was only to himself. Against the backdrop of this affair, in addition to visiting Yad Vashem, where he will plant a tree near the one recently planted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Duterte will visit the first monument dedicated to the steps that the Philippines took to open its doors to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. He will be accompanied on that visit by two Jews who found refuge in the Philippines and now live in Israel.
On his visit to Israel, Duterte is heading a particularly large delegation of about 400 people, including the defense minister and seven other cabinet ministers and more than 150 business people. The visit is to include an agreement designed to improve the working conditions of Philippine custodial nursing care workers in Israel, following years of efforts. The agreement will limit fees paid to placement agencies to $800, in addition to the cost of the worker’s flight.
There are about 30,000 Philippine citizens working in Israel. Duterte will be meeting with about 1,000 of them at the event in Jerusalem. Following an Israeli cabinet resolution permitting an increase in the number of foreign workers in the Israeli hotel industry, the two countries will discuss the possible employment of citizens of the Philippines in the Israeli hotel sector. There will also be talks on direct flights between Ben-Gurion International Airport and the Philippine capital, Manila.
Duterte was elected president in 2016 with 39 percent of the vote in a four-way contest. Since then, his public support has been on the upswing and he is considered the country’s strongest president since the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was deposed in 1986. In addition to Duterte’s explicit support for murder, he uses foul language in his speeches, recently calling God “stupid” and “the son of a whore.” He also called U.S. President Barack Obama a “son of a whore,” which resulted in a schism between the United States and the Philippines until Donald Trump took office.
Among his other controversial actions is his insistence on changing his country’s constitution. Theoretically the changes should reduce his authority in the provinces and in the Philippine Congress, but critics say his real aim is to eliminate time limits on his remaining in office. When he was mayor of the city of Davao, he was in office for 23 years.
In May the chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court was dismissed, purportedly for not declaring assets, but it occurred after she took the president to task for harming the independence of the judiciary in the course of his war on drugs. Philippine Senator Leila de Lima has been in custody for 16 months on drug trafficking charges after she accused the president of organizing an extrajudicial killing, but her case is yet to come to trial.
Since Duterte took office, relations between Israel and the Philippines have become much closer. On several occasions, the Philippines has voiced support for Netanyahu’s policies on various issues and has abstained on several controversial votes in the United Nations. In October 2017, Netanyahu initiated a telephone conversation with Duterte as part of the Israeli prime minister’s effort to garner support against a UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem. An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said at the time that the conversation had been a good one.
Plans for Duterte’s visit to Israel began to take shape about a year ago. The Philippines was thought to be a leading prospect as a country that could move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. But the country’s undersecretary of foreign affairs, Ernesto Abella, said in a briefing for Philippine media last week that the transfer of the embassy was not on the agenda. The Philippines, he said, has other partners in the region and the issue is therefore sensitive.