Malaysia is a “very tough nut to crack,” and the Southeast Asian Muslim-majority country is “not on its way to establishing ties with Israel,” said David Roet, the first Israeli diplomat to visit the country since 1965.
Roet headed a delegation last week of three Israelis to a 20,000-strong UN Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) conference in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia, which is implacably anti-Israel, allowed the participation of the Israeli delegation only begrudgingly after Israel applied extensive diplomatic pressure that reached all the way to the office of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Roet said on Tuesday that Israel – particularly its delegation to the UN and its embassy in Nairobi, which headquarters Habitat – fought hard on the issue. This was because by sponsoring a UN-affiliated event, Malaysia became obligated by its commitment to the UN to allow participants from all countries
“We demanded what was coming to us,” Roet said, adding that the Israeli actions are an important precedent for other countries that hold UN-affiliated conferences. The next UN-Habitat conference of this magnitude will be held in Abu Dhabi in 2020.
In 2015, Malaysia came under a great deal of international criticism for preventing two Israelis windsurfers from competing in the Youth Sailing World Championships. And in 1997, Israel’s national cricket team was met by demonstrations from the Islamic Party of Malaysia when it participated in a cricket tournament there.
Roet said the Foreign Ministry’s policy is to fight boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts in the diplomatic sphere, just as it does in the economic, cultural and academic spheres.
Roet met with senior officials in the country, though he said they did not deal directly with Israel-Malaysia relations. He made clear that “Israel does not see Malaysia as an enemy or a hostile country, and that there is no reason the two states don’t have relations.”
Roet, who currently works in the Foreign Ministry’s North American division in Jerusalem, was up until a few months ago Israel’s No. 2 at its delegation to the UN. He said that in his meetings in Kuala Lumpur he stressed that Malaysia’s boycott of Israel does not serve the Palestinian cause.
“I told them that we have relations with a number of countries that don’t agree with us on the conflict with the Palestinians, but with whom we maintain good ties,” he said.
Roet said that in speaking against Malaysia’s boycott of Israel, he said while diplomacy is complex, in some respects it is similar to interpersonal relations: “People are willing to take advice from people who are their friends, but not from enemies. And... boycotting Israel just distances Malaysia from having any influence.”
“Did I convince them? I can’t say that,” Roet said. “But this is a positive sign.”
He said another positive sign was the manner in which the Malaysian press reported on the Israeli visit in recent days in a “very neutral” manner.
Despite Malaysia’s stridently anti-Israel stance, significant trade with the country appears in Israel’s trade numbers. For instance, in 2015, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, trade between the two countries was some $1.43 billion, though it dropped in 2016 to just under $600 million. The bulk of that trade, however, is in computer chips being transferred from Intel’s plants in Israel to the company’s facilities in Malaysia.
The other Israelis in Roet’s delegation were former MK Ophir Pines-Paz, who today heads the Institute for Local Government at Tel Aviv University, and Eran Razin, head of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Urban and Regional Studies.