U.S. Jews Take Israel's Message to Asia

American Jewish Committee delegation meets senior officials in Australia, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore.

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SYDNEY - For diplomats looking west of Jerusalem this week, the view was grim: the government’s decision to construct more housing in East Jerusalem, slammed by the Obama administration, and Sweden’s controversial decision to officially recognize a Palestinian state were headline news.

But to the east, the outlook was far brighter, even if it carried fewer headlines.

Elbit Systems said it had been awarded $85 million of military contracts by an Asian country the company didn't name, although media reports said it likely is China or South Korea. And India confirmed it was buying missiles from Israel valued at $525 million.

Israel already has multibillion-dollar annual trade ties with China, India, Japan and South Korea, and the Four Tigers - Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea - are eyeing Israel with increasing interest, according to experts.

In the South Pacific, for the first time in 15 years, Israel is enjoying staunch support from Australia and New Zealand at the same time, following the election of conservative leaders John Key and Tony Abbott.

The increasing focus on the Asia-Pacific region was underscored last week by a multination visit from a high-profile delegation of senior leaders of the American Jewish Committee.

The group, led by AJC Executive Director David Harris, visited Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia and featured private meetings with the prime ministers of Japan and Australia.

“I can’t say if Israel is pivoting or shifting away from Europe, which remains Israel’s principal trading partner and closest neighbor, but it is true that Israel has devoted increasing resources to Asia,” Harris told Haaretz. “The results have been very rewarding.”

Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, a long-term partner of the AJC, joined the delegation in Indonesia, as well as in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

“The meeting with Japan’s Shinzo Abe was quite a coup and very important,” Rubenstein told Haaretz. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Japan in May and a reciprocal high-level visit from a Japanese delegation is expected in Israel next year, according to the AJC.

In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority nation, the delegation’s two-day program included meetings with MPs, senior journalists and two former foreign ministers, as well as Jussuf Kalla, Indonesia’s vice president, who has twice visited Israel, Rubenstein said.

Although there are no formal diplomatic ties between Jakarta and Jerusalem, Rubenstein said, “There’s widespread interest and even admiration of Israel in Asia.

“Obviously there’s a fascination with Startup Israel, but there is also an awareness that Israel wants peace and is interested in a two-state outcome.”

He said the Palestinian narrative has traction there, especially in countries like Indonesia, but there's also an awareness of the problems on the Palestinian side.

But Rubenstein said that “what’s overtaken a lot of this is the preoccupation with the future of Islam and Islamic extremists, [Islamic State] in particular, and the blowback in countries like Indonesia.”

In Canberra, Rubenstein joined Harris for the private meeting with Abbott last week. “We raised issues like Iran’s nuclear program, Islamist terrorism, how to combat [Islamic State] and the blowback in the region as well as Australia-Israel ties and the Australia-US relationship,” he said.

“[We reiterated] that Israel is on the front line in confronting terror and that [Islamic State] is the cousin of Hamas.”

Harris added: “Tony Abbott is certainly one of Israel’s greatest friends among world leaders today.”

In Canberra, the delegation also met Labor leader Bill Shorten, as well as the defense minister and his Labor counterpart.

While Rubenstein commended the leadership of the Labor Party for its support of Israel, he added: “It’s no secret there are elements on the Labor side that have been more critical.

“There are critics in the Labor Party but the leadership maintains that bipartisan support. That’s really the quality that singles Australia out from a number of other countries.”

Harris, who has led the AJC since 1990, said, “We came to Australia, first and foremost, to express our heartfelt gratitude and admiration for the country’s indispensable alliance with the U.S. and steadfast support for Israel.

“This is truly an exceptional nation, one that has stood with us shoulder to shoulder time and again.”

The AJC’s focus on Asia, Harris said, "began nearly 25 years ago, when we established AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute, the first of its kind. And I vividly recall many meetings in Jerusalem in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when we encouraged Israeli leaders to explore Asia more deeply and seize the many opportunities there. And today, 25 years later, a great deal has been done, with far more still possible.”