Freddy Eytan on The Long Journey to Asia

, October 1, 2005

Jewish Political Studies Review 17:3-4 (Fall 2005)

Moshe Yegar is the most qualified Israeli diplomat to write about The Long Journey to Asia. He joined the foreign service in May 1956 and held various posts in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Throughout his multifaceted career, he was at the center of diplomatic activity. His vast experience provided him with a global vision of what Israel’s foreign policy should be.

A graduate of the Hebrew University, Dr. Yegar has also devoted much time to research and writing. Among his most noted works are The Muslims of Burma (1972); Neutral Policy – Theory versus Practice: Swedish-Israeli Relations (1993); Czechoslovakia, Zionism, and Israel (1997); and Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/ Myanmar (2002). Highly versatile, Yegar has also written seven storybooks for children.

His latest book, The Long Journey to Asia, is the culmination of his works so far and the most authoritative document ever written on Israeli diplomacy in that continent. Yegar covers all the diplomatic developments, clearly and reliably reconstructing their elements. He does not omit any incidents, even initiatives that were doomed to failure from the outset. With the help of documents and letters, he details the viewpoints of the people involved. His aim is to draw all the possible lessons.

Yegar’s writing is informative and lucid, tinged with his own feelings about the various incidents – from enthusiasm to disappointment and even, sometimes, anger. At the same time, he upholds intellectual honesty. The book is supplemented with erudite notes and a long list of sources, reflecting the author’s dedication to his task.

 

The China Controversy

Yegar includes the disagreements and public recriminations raised by the fundamental question of whether Israel, in the 1950s, disregarded Asia and missed the opportunity to establish diplomatic relations with China. He emphasizes a contested mission by Member of Knesset David Ha’Cohen, who favored diplomatic relations with China without preconditions whereas Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett refused. Sharett continued to vacillate concerning the reactions of the U.S. State Department and the American Jewish community as well as the possible influence of Chinese communism on the Israeli Arabs. Especially noteworthy was the active opposition to relations with Asia by Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon and Education Minister Zalman Aranne – two senior members of the ruling Mapai Party who were hostile to Sharett.

Indeed, to this day internal issues influence diplomatic and governmental developments in Israel. As Henry Kissinger once put it, “Israel does not have a foreign policy; its government is occupied only with domestic matters.”

Yegar examines relevant governmental decisions and highlights the role of the foreign minister in each case. He praises Sharett’s diplomatic resourcefulness, even when his plans were not implemented. He emphasizes that as foreign minister, Golda Meir devoted less attention to Asia than to Africa. Abba Eban was also, in Yegar’s view, a disappointment as he focused all his activity on the United States and Europe.

Yegar points out that trade between Israel and Asian countries began to develop only after the Sinai Campaign in 1956. Despite obstruction by the Arab states, Jerusalem continued to expand its representation in Asia. By the end of 1960, it had embassies in Burma and Thailand, diplomatic officials in Japan and the Philippines, a chargé d’affaires in Ceylon, nonresident ambassadors in Nepal, Cambodia, and Laos, and a consulate in India. Israel’s strongest base, however, was in Burma, reflecting the special personal relations between the respective prime ministers, David Ben-Gurion and U Nu.

In the second half of the book, Yegar explores Israeli diplomatic activity in each Asian country. After a comprehensive review of the forging of full diplomatic ties with India, he devotes an especially absorbing chapter to the relations with China from the first contacts in 1948 to the present. The breakthrough to full relations with both India and China began with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. That development, in conjunction with the first Gulf War leading to the Madrid Conference, fostered a great improvement in Israel’s status in Asia. The process, however, is not yet complete, as important Muslim nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia still refuse diplomatic relations with Israel. Indeed, in 2003 then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made anti-Semitic declarations that encouraged a wave of Islamic terror on the continent.

The book’s division into two parts, when in reality it is a single unified work, is somewhat unfortunate. It would have been preferable to spare readers having repeatedly to return to the introductory overview, instead focusing in the body of the book on the various diplomatic processes leading to relations with Asian countries.

The Long Journey to Asia is the best work ever written about Israel’s foreign policy on this continent and is required reading not only for those interested in the intricacies of diplomacy. It can guide researchers, students, diplomats, and politicians in avoiding failed efforts and the repetition of past mistakes.

 

* This review was translated from the Hebrew by Shalom Bronstein.

Amb. Freddy Eytan

Amb. Freddy Eytan, a former Foreign Ministry senior advisor who served in Israel’s embassies in Paris and Brussels, was Israel’s first Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. He was also the spokesman of the Israeli delegation in the peace process with the Palestinians. Since 2007, he heads the Israel-Europe Project at the Jerusalem Center, which focuses on analyzing Israeli relations with the countries of Europe and seeks to develop ties and avenues of bilateral cooperation. He is also the director of Le Cape, the Jerusalem Center website in French. Amb. Eytan has written 20 books about the Israeli-Arab conflict and the policy of France in the Middle East, including La Poudriere (The Powder Keg) and Le double jeu (the Double Game). He has also published biographies of Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, and a book, The 18 Who Built Israel.