Philippine Strongman Duterte Expected to Visit Israel

Denounced for human rights abuses, comparing self to Hitler, calling Obama ‘son of a bitch,’ Jerusalem official sees no problem with Rodrigo Duterte visit.

File Photo: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Aug. 25, 2016.
Bullit Marquez, AP

The controversial president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who has compared himself to Hitler, assailed Western countries and called former U.S. President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch,” is expected to pay an official visit to Israel in a few months.

According to an official in the Foreign Ministry, Duterte recently expressed a desire to visit Jerusalem and was told that in principle he could do so. Contacts between the two sides are now underway to set a date for the visit, probably even before summer, the official said.

The Foreign Ministry official said that despite international criticism of Duterte and claims of serious human rights abuses in the Philippines, as well as Duterte’s provocative statements, there is no reason for him not to visit. “There are many controversial leaders in the world and many countries that criticize them. Duterte is not boycotted by the world, there are no sanctions against him and he has visited a number of countries since taking office,” the official said.

Still, most of Duterte’s official visits outside the Philippines since taking office in June 2016 have been to neighboring Asian countries, such as Japan, China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In May, Duterte is expected to visit Russia. He has visited no European countries, nor has he been to North America, Australia or New Zealand on official visits as president.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by phone to Duterte in October. The call was initiated by Netanyahu as part of his efforts to urge countries to vote against a UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem. An official in the Foreign Ministry said that the conversation between the two had been good, especially considering that Duterte is seen as a harsh critic of UN institutions. The vote in UNESCO was by secret ballot, but it is believed in Israel that after the Netanyahu-Duterte phone call, the Philippines voted against the decision. It is unclear whether the possibility of visiting Jerusalem was raised during the call.

A few weeks before the phone call, during a September 2016 press conference in Davao, where Duterte had been mayor, he compared his campaign against drug dealers to the Holocaust and said he would kill drug addicts as Hitler had killed Jews. Critics, he said, portrayed him as “Hitler’s cousin,” adding: “Hitler massacred three million Jews. There are three million drug addicts and I would be happy to slaughter them. If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines had ” At this point, according to media reports, Duterte pointed to himself.

Duterte’s statements were roundly condemned by the U.S. State Department, as well as by the German and Israeli foreign ministries. Two days later, Duterte apologized in a televised speech.

Close security ties

Israel and the Philippines maintain close security ties and Israel has sold a good deal of weaponry to the Philippine army over the years. It is believed by some that Duterte will use the expected visit to Israel to tighten security ties and purchase more arms. In recent months the sale of arms to the Philippines by the United States and other countries has been put on hold out of concern that they will be used against civilians as part of Duterte’s war against the drug cartels.

On September 21, 2016, on a visit to an army unit, Duterte said he wanted to buy guns and espionage equipment from Israel because of their high quality. On October 4, a few days after apologizing for his Hitler remark, Duterte visited a synagogue in the Philippine city of Makati for Rosh Hashana. On that occasion he said he wanted to buy guns from Israel because Israel is a friend of the Philippines and would not plant spy equipment in the guns, as he said the United States had done.

Since coming into office in late June 2016, Duterte passed a law in parliament allowing the security forces to kill drug users and dealers. As of January 31, 2017, more than 7,000 people had been killed in the Philippines, at least 2,500 of them by police, and the rest by “suspects unknown.” According to Duterte, most of those killed were drug dealers. In early February, Duterte said he would order the army to join the police in its fight against the drug cartels and that he would not hesitate to kill thousands more to solve the drug problem in the Philippines.

Duterte’s policy and the thousands of casualties drew harsh criticism, particularly by the European Union, the United Nations and the previous U.S. administration, which cited severe human rights abuses in the Philippines.

The Philippines is considered a staunch ally of the United States in northeast Asia.

Duterte responded to the criticism with harsh statements against Western leaders, particularly President Barack Obama, calling him a “son of a bitch.” Obama then canceled a planned meeting with Duterte, to have taken place during an international meeting in Laos.