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Israel’s recent participation in the World Urban Forum (WUF) in Kuala Lumpur from 7-13 February has predictably aroused controversy. Given our myopic views and anti-Semitism, anything Israeli or Jewish always makes for great political drama and is quickly exploited by political parties to score cheap points and burnish their Islamic credentials.

Playing to the gallery

Pro-government groups routinely accuse the DAP, for example, of collaborating with the Jewish state as when they infamously accused the DAP of secretly plotting to set up an Israeli military base in Malaysia.

And who can forget how skilfully the government manipulated and exploited Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with mammoth rallies and stirring speeches about their commitment to Palestine?

Playing to the gallery, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak pompously declared: “We will not budge in our defence for the plight of the Palestinians… even if it means cutting me up into pieces, leaving behind only one piece of ‘meat’, we will not budge.”

The trouble with this approach is that it encourages others to play the same game as Amanah and PKR are now doing.

When news broke that Israeli officials participated in the WUF, one Harapan MP demanded to know whether Malaysia was softening its stance on Israel by allowing the aforementioned Israeli officials to enter the country. Saying that the “move had caused shock and sadness among many Muslims in the country,” he asked whether the government had “pawned the pride of Muslims in matters concerning Israel just for the sake of money and trade?”

Even, PAS, notwithstanding its own ongoing scheming and connivance with UMNO, couldn’t resist taking a dig at the government by suggesting that the decision to admit Israeli diplomats proved that UMNO was “untrustworthy.”

And, of course, there is no shortage of Muslim NGOs ready to be outraged at the drop of a hat. “The decision by the Malaysian government to issue visas to senior-level [Israeli] delegates to enter [Malaysia] is shocking and most regretful,” a coalition of NGOs griped.

Just another UN meeting

In reality, it’s all much ado about nothing.

The simple fact, as Foreign Minister Anifah Aman rightly clarified, is that the Israelis were here to attend a UN conference, nothing more. As a UN member and host, Malaysia has certain obligations including allowing all UN members to attend.

It is for the same reason that the US permits North Korea and Iran, both of which it cannot abide and does not have diplomatic relations with, to travel to New York to attend UN meetings.

Israel’s attendance at the WUF does not, therefore, imply recognition or a change in policy. There is nothing sinister about it and those who have chosen to make an issue of it are doing so for purely political reasons.

Keeping Israel out

Of course, there are those who will argue that under such circumstances it is better not to host international conferences, but that is both irrational and illogical and does not serve our interests. Why should we cut ourselves off from the rest of the world just to keep Israel out?

Those who demand that trade relations between Malaysia and Israel be banned are also ignorant about how interconnected the world economy has become. Goods, services, technology and investments cross borders in many different ways irrespective of whether or not there are direct linkages.

Waze, the popular app used by millions of Malaysians to navigate our increasingly complicated highways, for example, is an Israeli invention. It hasn’t stopped us from using it no matter what our views about Israel are.

Engaging Israel

The fact is, the world is changing and changing rapidly and no more so than in the Middle East. We must find new ways to accomplish long-held objectives. Rigid positions and knee-jerk reactions might make for good domestic politics but they do little to advance our interests or help the Palestinian people.

Instead of making a big issue about their presence here, we should have seized the opportunity to informally engage the Israelis about Palestine. It would have certainly done more to help the Palestinians than the noisy demonstrations and empty rhetoric that have become a substitute for meaningful policy these days.

But, of course, that requires courage and real leadership.

Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 18th February 2018

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