Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 (Fall 2006)
Since its establishment (initially as Malaya) in 1957, Malaysia has rejected formal diplomatic relations with Israel and has kept contacts on a low flame at best. Reasons include Malaysia‘s desire to cultivate ties with the Arab countries and the power of domestic Islamic trends. Malaysian animus toward Israel grew during the 1960s, although a certain level of commercial activity between the two countries was tolerated. In 1981 the openly anti-Semitic Dato Mahathir bin Muhamad was elected Malaysia‘s prime minister, and he continued his public condemnations of Israel and Jews while strengthening Malaysia‘s support for the PLO. Although during the Oslo era he somewhat moderated his statements, he ended his tenure in October 2003 with an anti-Semitic diatribe at a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Since then Malaysia has remained cool toward Israel, claiming that relations depend on a solution of the Palestinian problem.
Asia’s Muslim countries constitute a considerable portion of its total population. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation, and its population at the end of the twentieth century stood at 210 million and surpassed that of all the Arab countries combined. Pakistan and Bangladesh each number 120-130 million people. Malaysia has eighteen million inhabitants, and there are smaller Muslim countries such as Brunei and the Maldives. Some Asian Muslim countries have taken an intensely hostile stance toward Israel and been full partners in the Arab diplomatic campaign against it.
To one extent or another, all the Asian Muslim countries share the loathing of Israel and refusal to establish diplomatic relations with it. This stems from the sense of Islamic solidarity with the Arab countries and, more broadly, of being part of the Islamic ummah or nation.1 Over the past few decades, almost every Muslim country has undergone a trend of geopolitical radicalization. This is partly because of the belief that Jews, Zionism, and Israel are anti-Islamic, anti-Arab, and pro-American agents. Asian Islamist groups pressure their governments to get involved in world Islamic affairs, such as the Palestinian problem and the general Arab struggle against Israel.2
Malaysia has been exceptional in being not only malignantly anti-Israeli but also openly anti-Semitic by all accepted definitions. The factor behind this was former prime minister Dr. Dato Mahathir bin Muhamad.
From Malaya to Malaysia
The Federation of Malaya was established in 1957. It combined nine sultanates of the Malay Peninsula that had been under British protection since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and two crown colonies, Penang and Malacca. It had a population of 6.2 million, about half of whom were Malay-Muslims, 37 percent Chinese, 11 percent Indians, and the remainder Europeans or others. The Malays, who began gradually accepting Islam five hundred years ago, mostly live in villages. Over the past hundred years their relations with Arab countries have grown, resulting especially from the pilgrimage to Mecca and the flow of young people to Egypt and Saudi Arabia for religious studies. Religious leaders have great influence over the Malay population.
Large-scale Chinese immigration to Malaya began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century with the discovery and subsequent development of tin mines by the British. Many workers were also brought from India to the rubber plantations. This is the source of Malaysia’s difficult problems of ethnicity, religion, and culture.
With the granting of independence in 1957, representatives of all the groups, including the non-Muslim ones, agreed that Islam would be Malaya’s established religion, Malay its official language, and that constitutional clauses would favor the Malays in the government, army, police, economy, and education.
The Federation of Malaysia, established on 16 September 1963, included two additional territories, Sabah and Sarawak. The founder and first prime minister of Malaya and afterward Malaysia was Tunku Abdul Rahman. He was the country’s dominant political figure until his retirement as prime minister in 1971.
Early Attempts at Diplomatic Relations
The hostility of Indonesia, which characterized Malaysia as a neocolonialist creation dependent on British bayonets, prompted Malaysia’s leaders to take steps to improve its image, especially in the Afro-Asian world. Approaches to the Arab countries came at the expense of relations with Israel. To win Arab and especially Egyptian sympathy, Malaysia developed a policy of “Muslim solidarity” and made every effort to appear as a Muslim country, especially from 1965 onward. Meanwhile, various Malaysian figures made anti-Israeli declarations and opposed Israel in both bilateral and international contexts.
The first Israeli-Malayan political contact came when Moshe Sharett visited Kuala Lumpur in 1956 as part of his trip to Asia. Sharett had been Israel’s first foreign minister and also prime minister for a time, and he toured Asia under the sponsorship of the Foreign Ministry. “The Tunku” (Abdul Rahman’s princely title) was then chief minister and was expected to serve as prime minister after the granting of independence, which was scheduled for the following year.
Sharett met with the Tunku on 14 October 1956. Sharett suggested that an Israeli consul be appointed in Kuala Lumpur and, after independence, be elevated to ambassadorial level. According to Sharett, the Tunku’s response was “favorable without hesitation” and he said he “welcomes the proposal with pleasure.” The Tunku also said, however, that the idea had to be approved by the British Foreign Office, which was responsible for foreign relations until independence. Before their parting, the Tunku reiterated his own approval and said, “It will be considered an honor for us to have a diplomatic representative from Israel.”3
Only on 13 February 1957 did the Asian and African Division of the Israeli Foreign Ministry instruct Israel’s ambassador in London to approach the British Foreign Office for approval to open a consulate in Malaya. When the British asked the Malays about it, they did not reply promptly but apparently were negatively inclined.
On 13 August, the British Foreign Office advised the Israeli ambassador to wait until Malaya’s independence on 31 August and directly ask the new government. On 26 August, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sent a congratulatory letter to the Tunku and told him Israel was ready to establish “appropriate representation” in Kuala Lumpur. Israel also voted to accept Malaya in the United Nations. On 23 December, a member of Malaya’s UN delegation told a member of the Israeli delegation that Malaya recognized Israel but had no intention of establishing diplomatic ties with it.
On 10 November 1959 the Israeli envoy to Australia, Moshe Yuval, reported that he had met the day before with the Tunku during the latter’s visit to Australia. Among other things, the Tunku told him: “I remember my conversation with Mr. Sharett. The leadership of Malaya knows the character of Israel very well, but the Muslim masses in our country are opposed to you. Therefore, we cannot establish diplomatic relations with you.” Concurrently, the Tunku promised Arab governments that Malaya would not open formal ties with Israel, and this was reported in Jordanian newspapers.4
In August 1960, a new opportunity arose to convey a message to the Malayan government. Because of expense, the Israel Football Association was unable to send a representative to a conference of the Asian Football Federation in Kuala Lampur, of which Israel was a member and the Tunku was president. The Israel Football Association requested that the Foreign Ministry dispatch someone to Kuala Lumpur from a nearby embassy. The Foreign Ministry decided to send this author, then serving as the second secretary in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar).
In the course of a conversation with the Tunku, he explained that establishing diplomatic relations with Israel would give the opposition radical-Islamic political party ammunition to weaken the government.5 Nevertheless, the warm hospitality and expression of goodwill by the Tunku and other major Malay figures raised the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s hope that Malaya would not rebuff various Israeli attempts at contacts, eventually laying the groundwork for diplomatic ties. One idea was to open a consulate in Singapore, then a separate British Crown Colony, that would handle affairs concerning nearby Malaya.6
In November 1961, the Tunku visited London. Israeli ambassador Arthur Lurie met with him on 25 November. Lurie expressed Israel’s disappointment at the lack of diplomatic ties and suggested beginning by appointing a lower-level representative such as a consul. The Tunku responded that pro-Arab groups strongly opposed Malaya recognizing Israel, and that the Arab countries, especially Egypt, pressured Malaya in this regard. He said he would welcome, however, the development of commercial relations and suggested opening a consulate in Singapore, which was then the center of Malayan commercial activity.
The Israeli commercial company Astraco, which had branches in other Asian countries, had earlier opened an office in Singapore. In March 1963, the Malayan Foreign Ministry granted it a license to open a branch, known as Interasia, in Kuala Lumpur.7
The Federation of Malaysia was formally established on 16 September 1963. Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir sent the Tunku a congratulatory telegram.8
Early in 1964, less than a year after opening the office in Kuala Lumpur, Astraco decided that it had no economic justification and the Singapore office could handle commerce with Malaya. The head of the company conveyed this to the director of the Asian and African Division of the Foreign Ministry. The question arose as to whether it was worth continuing the office in any way possible so as to maintain an Israeli presence in Kuala Lumpur. A Foreign Ministry official could be sent to manage the Interasia branch and attempt to promote relations between the two countries. The present author volunteered for this assignment.
At the end of May 1964, the Tunku’s closest friend and football entrepreneur Lim Kee Siong arrived in Israel as the Asian football tournament was being held there. This author presented him with a letter to the Tunku stating, among other things, this author’s intention to come to Malaysia. Lim Kee Siong also met with Foreign Minister Meir. He told her that the Tunku and the Malaysians in general felt friendship toward Israel, but Arab pressure and the need for support in Malaysia’s conflict with Indonesia, which opposed Malaysia’s creation, prevented setting up diplomatic ties with Israel.
Meir replied that Malaysia being a Muslim country did not justify the lack of diplomatic relations with Israel and mentioned the examples of Nigeria, Chad, and other African Muslim countries. She asked Lim Kee Siong to convey to the Tunku that Israel was interested in full diplomatic relations or, at least, the gradual development of ties between the two countries.
On 18 July 1964, the director-general of the Malaysian Foreign Ministry, Zaitun Ibrahim, visited the Israeli ambassador in Bangkok, Yehiel Ilsar, who was an old acquaintance. Zaitun Ibrahim, too, said there was great friendliness toward Israel in Malaysia but also opposition because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Tunku had to take into account the hostility toward Malaysian-Israeli ties in the opposition parties, and in his own party as well. Malaysia, furthermore, needed all the support it could garner from Islamic and Arab countries.
At the start of August 1964, the Tunku gave a lecture to the Foreign Affairs Council in New York. When a listener asked about Malaysian-Israeli relations, the Tunku responded that Malaysia was involved in a bitter struggle with Muslim Indonesia and could not expose itself to the criticism and pressure that would result from improving ties with Israel. Nevertheless, Malaysia maintained a favorable attitude toward Israel and he himself had made special efforts to clarify this to Israeli representatives in various countries.
This author was in Kuala Lumpur from November 1964 to January 1966-outwardly, as head of an Israeli commercial concern and not as a diplomat. However, the Malaysian government understood the real nature of the mission. During this period the author met with the Tunku, the interior minister, the permanent secretary of the Foreign Ministry, and with the secretary of the Department of Culture, Youth and Sport, all of whom were Muslims, and with other ministers who were Chinese and Indian.
At this time Israel made concerted efforts to further relations with Malaysia, which failed for two main reasons. First, it was too late; Malaysia, as noted, was already trying to marshal Arab support in its struggle with Indonesia and wanted to strengthen ties with the Arab world. Second, the Israeli Foreign Ministry dealt with the matter carelessly and sporadically.9 Three forces pressured the Malaysian government to expel this author from Kuala Lumpur and terminate the Israeli presence in Malaysia: the Islamic opposition party, the Egyptian embassy, and the British High Commission. The Foreign Office in London and the High Commission in Kuala Lumpur took pains to conceal their attitude from Israel.10
Malaysia’s Growing Antagonism
In the wake of the Conference of Nonaligned Nations in October 1964, Malaysia wanted all the more to be accepted among the Afro-Asian countries. By 1965, its attitude toward Israel was increasingly antagonistic. Its diplomats avoided Israeli counterparts, and it refused to grant entry permits to Israelis, engaged in anti-Israeli initiatives at the United Nations, and made belligerently anti-Israeli, sometimes even anti-Semitic, declarations in the United Nations, international agencies, and so on. In 1965, four Malaysians participated in courses at the Afro-Asian Institute in Israel, and another came to Israel for an advanced course on education. From 1966, no more Malaysians came to Israel for studies.
In the parliament in Kuala Lumpur on 23 August 1966, the Tunku stated that Malaysia did not recognize Israel. He even berated Singapore, which by then was independent, for having Israeli advisers, and compared Singapore’s status in Southeast Asia as an enclave surrounded by Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia to that of Israel surrounded by Arab countries. As of January 1968, Israeli seamen arriving at Malaysian ports were forbidden to disembark from their ships. In 1974, trade with Israel and the granting of entry permits to Israelis were completely prohibited.
Five years after Malaya’s independence, it had diplomatic relations only with Egypt and Saudi Arabia among the Arab countries. After 1967 this increased, and by 1991 Malaysia had relations with all of them.11
Nevertheless, impromptu interactions with Israel continued. In August 1968 Abd al-Rahman, a businessman and son of the Tunku, came to Israel on the initiative of and accompanied by the Israeli entrepreneur Shaul Eisenberg. Abd al-Rahman represented a Malaysian lumber company and met with people in that field during his visit. In November 1969, Malaysian representatives of the Asian Sports Federation asked their Israeli colleagues to support Malaysia’s bid to host the Asia Games in 1974. They claimed that the Tunku was obligated to prevent discrimination of the kind that occurred when Israel was not invited to the Asian Games in Jakarta in 1962.12
The Tunku retired as prime minister in 1971 and was appointed the head secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). From 1971 to 1981, two Malaysian prime ministers continued the policy toward Israel but took no particular interest in the Jewish state. The situation changed when Dr. Dato Mahathir bin Muhamad was elected prime minister on 1 July 1981. Mahathir introduced a different style. His book The Malay Dilemma, written in 1969 in the wake of Malay-Chinese riots, manifests his racist outlook. In this generally anti-Chinese work, Mahathir maintained that races are distinguished not only by ethnic origin but also by many other characteristics. The Jews, for example, not only have hooked noses but also an instinctive understanding of finances. Sale of the book was banned in Malaysia, and Mahathir was temporarily expelled from the ruling Malay political party.
A short time later, he was reinstated and intensified his political activity, eventually becoming education minister and later prime minister. A radical Muslim, Mahathir was severely anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic and gave Malaysia’s foreign policy a new tone toward Israel and in general.13
An Anti-Semitic Prime Minister
During Mahathir’s years as prime minister he made extreme anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic statements, some of which achieved wide resonance. Mahathir nurtured anti-Semitism in a Malaysia that was without Jews. On 27 January 1981, in a speech in Saudi Arabia, he urged regaining the Palestinian lands by force since Israel was not invincible. He also, as will be discussed, vilified Israel at major venues.
In June 1983, Mahathir issued a statement attacking Israel for its incursion into Lebanon and calling it “the most immoral country in the world.” In October 1983, at the OIC’s Sixth Conference on Palestine held in New York, Malaysia expressed concern about Israel’s renewed activities in Africa and called for their immediate halt. Malaysia opposed establishing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and supported the resolution at the Jerusalem Conference of the OIC (New York, April 1984) to sever ties with any country that moved its ambassador to Jerusalem.
Malaysia supported the PLO more strongly than did any other Southeast Asian country. In 1969, Malaysia was the first Asian country to permit Fatah to open an office in its capital, which in 1974 became a PLO office. In August 1982, under Mahathir, this office was given full diplomatic recognition. Malaysia’s foreign minister claimed that Israel should recognize the PLO before demanding that it recognize Israel. In May 1983, Malaysia hosted a conference on the Palestine question with UN funding and expressed anti-Israeli propaganda in its media. Yasser Arafat, paying an official visit to Malaysia in July 1984, was received by the king and spoke to a large audience.14
In August 1984, a visit to Kuala Lumpur by the New York Philharmonic was canceled because of the Malaysian information minister’s demand that a work by the Swiss Jewish composer Ernst Bloch be removed from the program. The minister’s statement on the matter included anti-Semitic expressions.
From 1983 onward, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published and disseminated in Malaysia. On 12 August 1983, Mahathir asserted in a speech to the Malaysian Press Club that Jews and Zionists controlled the international media. He repeated this charge four days later and added that the journalists working for foreign newspapers under Jewish control were trying to destabilize Malaysia through distorted reports. He called the Wall Street Journal a Jewish tool.
In a speech in September 1986 at the summit of the Nonaligned Nations in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, Mahathir complained that the Jews’ exile two thousand years ago and their persecution under the Nazis had not taught them anything. On the contrary, these persecutions had turned them into the very monsters they vilified in their own propaganda; they had become the gifted students of Goebbels.
In another speech to the Malaysian parliament on 10 October 1986, Mahathir referred to attempts by Zionists to use Malaysian individuals and groups to damage the country’s economy. He also blamed the “Zionist press” in Western countries for the low level of American investment in Malaysia. He often attacked the New York Times and the Asian Wall Street Journal as Zionist publications.15
Israeli president Chaim Herzog’s visit to Singapore in November 1986 evoked harsh Malaysian reactions including bitter condemnations of Israel and Zionism. There were calls to cut off Singapore’s water supply and burn its flag.16
Mahathir and Malaysian diplomatic representatives made constant belligerent speeches about Israel, often condemning it for causing suffering to the Palestinians. In 1992, Malaysia denied entry to a delegate from Israel’s El Al airlines for the International Flight Conference in Kuala Lumpur. In December that year, it denied entry to an Israeli football player on the Liverpool team, and the team canceled its visit to Malaysia.
In March 1994, Mahathir prohibited the screening of Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List on the ground that it was an anti-German propaganda film aimed at winning support for Jews and contained too much violence. When this evoked protests in the United States and Australia, the Malaysia cabinet canceled the prohibition against the film but required that seven scenes with violence or sex be cut. Spielberg, however, insisted that the film be shown in its entirety or not at all. In the end, it was decided to remove all his films from Malaysia.17
Early in 1992, Israel began normalizing its relations with China, India, and other Asian countries. This drew its Foreign Ministry’s attention to the Muslim countries in Asia. The view regarding Malaysia was that Mahathir was an anti-Semite and there was no chance of changing his country’s hostile policy so long as he was prime minister.
The Oslo Era
The signing of the Israeli-PLO Declaration of Principles on 20 August 1993 brought Mahathir to lower his tone. Malaysia’s deputy foreign minister announced in parliament that Malaysia welcomed the Israeli-PLO agreement. Mahathir, on a different occasion, said Malaysia would consider diplomatic relations with Israel, but first Israel had to do more to bring peace to the Middle East. He expressed hope that Israelis and Palestinians could now live in peace and that all Palestinian land would be returned, and pointed out that the future status of Jerusalem remained unresolved.
The deputy minister of international trade and industry said Malaysia aimed to penetrate the Israeli market as soon as the two countries set up diplomatic relations; meanwhile, the trade and economic sanctions against Israel would continue. The foreign minister said Malaysia would pledge $5 million to help the Palestinians govern Gaza and Jericho, would help them develop the infrastructure in areas evacuated by Israel, and would provide technical assistance in the administrative and police domains. The PLO ambassador to Malaysia claimed it was the first country to offer assistance to the PLO after the signing of the agreement with Israel.
On 28 December 1993, however, Mahathir announced at a press conference that Malaysia was not yet ready to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. By then several Gulf states had done so, but Malaysia’s stance was that Israel still had much to do. For example, Israel had not announced its acceptance of a Palestinian state or that it would cease “terrorist activities” even as the Palestinians were asked to end their own terror tactics.18
On 14 July 1994, the brother of the king of Malaysia, Tunku Abdallah bin Tunku abd Al-Rahman, paid a private visit to Israel. He was the chairman of a consortium of commercial and investment companies. Among others, Tunku Abdallah met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. When the visit was made known in Malaysia, Mahathir denied that the government had arranged it or that Tunku Abdallah was on a diplomatic mission. He said he did not know about the trip and believed it was strictly for business.
On returning to Kuala Lumpur on 16 July, Tunku Abdallah said his visit was entirely private and aimed at checking the feasibility of opening commercial relations in tourism and technology, and this was in the framework of his trip to Europe. He claimed Israel had exploited his visit for political advantage since he was the king’s brother, and that his meetings with Rabin and Peres were of a social nature only. He apologized to all those who were offended by the visit. Nevertheless, the justice minister threatened that the police would investigate Tunku Abdallah and confiscate his passport for breaking the law by visiting Israel.19
While the Malaysia government and media were occupied with Tunku Abdallah’s visit, Mahathir announced that Rabin had written to him to suggest establishing diplomatic relations in light of the improved Israeli-PLO ties. Mahathir had replied, he said, that Malaysia opposed such relations until Israel and the PLO resolved all the remaining issues between them. He told the press, moreover, that he was not convinced of Israel’s sincerity in its peace talks with the PLO, since “Israel continues to humiliate the Palestinians and has no intention of returning Jerusalem to them.” Although Rabin believed this was the right time to advance relations with the Asian Muslim countries, his overture to Mahathir was merely tentative.
Meanwhile, Malaysia had no intention to revoke its trade embargo with Israel. In a visit to Jordan on 9 October 1994, Mahathir explained at a press conference that Malaysia would decide whether to recognize Israel only after it signed peace treaties with all the Arab countries and fulfilled all the Arab demands including with respect to Jerusalem.20
At that time there were indications that Malaysia had changed its approach to Israel in some areas relating to economics. During 1994, a small number of Israelis were allowed to enter Malaysia to attend international conferences on various topics. Specifically, in December that year Malaysia granted entry permits to eight Israelis who came to participate in a conference on fertilizers.21
On 24 October that year, Malaysia permitted Malaysian Muslims to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem but not to visit other places in Israel. The pilgrims could enter Israel only through Jordan and stay no longer than two weeks. In announcing this, the deputy foreign minister said there was no change in Malaysia’s policy toward Israel despite its attempts to make peace with Arab countries and the PLO.
When this was made public, Christian groups in Malaysia asked for a similar arrangement. The foreign minister approved their request on 10 November. Shortly thereafter, the president of Malaysia’s travel-agent association met with the commerce and tourism attachés at the Israeli embassy in Singapore to work out details for Malaysian tourism to Jerusalem. During 1-5 January 1995, a delegation of Malaysian travel agents visited Israel.22 In that year, a Malaysian delegation took part in an economic conference in Casablanca in which Israel also participated, and in a continuation of the conference in Amman, and El Al and the Malaysian national airline signed an air-traffic agreement.
Furthermore, in late May 1995 a Malaysian television crew visited Israel. On 18 June, the program it filmed there was broadcast on Malaysian television. It included an interview with, among others, the then Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert. Israeli songs were heard in the background.23
The picture was more complex regarding commercial relations. On 17 September 1994, Malaysian customs authorities impounded a shipment of 24,000 tons of fertilizer on the suspicion that it originated in Israel, from which imports were illegal. However, Malaysia began to suspect that there was a counterboycott on selling Malaysian products by Jewish businessmen in various countries. In mid-January 1996, Malaysia’s minister of international trade and industry announced that his ministry was exploring the possibility of gradually instituting commercial relations with Israel. He added, however, that such trade would have no political significance. “It will be like with Taiwan. We do not have diplomatic relations with her but there are numerous commercial relations.”
In a visit to New Delhi in January 1996, Israel’s then finance minister Avraham Shochat said he looked forward to diplomatic relations with Malaysia and Indonesia in the near future. The director-general of Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry responded by saying Malaysia was in no hurry to have diplomatic ties with Israel, repeating what Mahathir had said a few days earlier.24
An Ongoing Coolness
Revealing misplaced enthusiasm, the director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Industry and Trade, Yosi Snir, requested clarification from Malaysia on the issue of permitting economic relations with Israel. Only upon receiving a response, he explained, would his ministry remove Malaysia from the list of countries from which imports were forbidden. In addition, the spokesperson for the Israel embassy in Singapore said Israel looked forward to Malaysia taking steps to normalize commercial and diplomatic relations with Israel.25
Apparently, Malaysia did not respond to the Israeli feelers. In mid-February 1996, however, a Malaysian businessman visited Israel to discuss cooperation between Israeli and Malaysian companies. In late March a delegation of Malaysian businessmen came to Israel and held talks with heads of chambers of commerce. Although Malaysia’s official boycott of Israeli products still stood, the head of the Malaysian delegation said he had been authorized by the minister of industry and trade. In early May the Israeli Port Authority sponsored an international conference, and a sixteen-member Malaysian delegation attended with government approval.
These developments, along with Malaysia’s change of policy in granting entry permits to Israelis, created an expectation that Malaysia was about to open an economic interest office in Tel Aviv.26 In June 1996, the parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry announced in parliament that his ministry was considering sending an official commercial mission to Israel. The Malaysian foreign minister added that future commercial relations with Israel depended on the efforts of the new Israeli government, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, to achieve peace. In October 1996, the Malaysian bank Public Bank Bhd. established direct relations with Israel’s Bank Hapoalim to enable commercial firms in both countries to make direct financial transactions. Malaysia’s deputy finance minister announced that Israeli businessmen would be permitted to invest in Malaysia.27
In light of these developments, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in New York decided to urge Malaysian leaders to speed up establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Several meetings were held with Malaysian representatives to the United Nations and with Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, but these did not lead to any positive outcomes.
In 1997, Malaysia took two small steps in the area of youth and sports. During 3-16 March, an Israeli youth delegation made up of fourteen high school students of both sexes visited Malaysia. It was said that Mahathir himself was behind the initiative. The students visited two schools and met with the education minister and other senior government officials. This visit did not arouse public interest.
Yet when an Israeli cricket team arrived a few days later to take part in an international tournament, demonstrations by Muslims and students erupted in which Israeli flags were burned. To achieve calm, the foreign minister quickly declared in parliament that Malaysia had no intention to establish diplomatic relations with Israel “until Tel Aviv honors its obligations according to the peace treaty it signed with the Palestinians.”28
Mahathir had made the same point at a press conference in New York late in September 1996. Moreover, in reaction to the violence that had erupted over Israel’s opening of a tunnel at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, he accused the new Netanyahu government of trying to retreat from the agreements signed by the Rabin government. Mahathir said the opening of the tunnel was a provocation and an assault on the sanctity of the Al-Aksa Mosque. Speaking at the UN General Assembly at that time, Malaysia’s foreign minister said Israel’s attempt to make Jerusalem its capital was illegal, and that Malaysia supported the Palestinians’ aspirations for self-determination in their own state.29
In July 1997, when Malaysia faced a severe economic crisis, Mahathir was convinced it was caused by the Jewish financier George Soros. It seems Soros’s dealing in Malaysian currency harmed the country’s economy, and the reports in Malaysian newspapers were full of anti-Semitic innuendos. Mahathir tried to explain this: “We are not anti-Semites. The Arabs are also Semites. Just as people make a connection between Islam, Muslims and terrorism, there are people in this country who are inclined to connect [dealing in foreign currency] with Jews. . . . I think that most Jews are innocent, but the impression is that the Jews have a lot of money. They know how to manipulate money. . . . “
In October 1997 when the crisis worsened, Mahathir continued his anti-Semitic rhetoric. He referred in a speech to the “international Jewish conspiracy” and to his government’s fears that the Jews planned to destroy Malaysia’s and other Muslim countries’ economies.30
American Jewish organizations reacted. The JCRC sent a letter of protest on Mahathir’s comments to Malaysia’s UN representatives. Jewish leaders in New York met with Malaysian diplomats and with the Malaysian deputy prime minister and finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who was visiting the city. The Malaysians tried to explain that Mahathir was prone to outbursts and did not heed advice from anyone, but was not an anti-Semite. Anwar Ibrahim, however, said Mahathir sincerely believed in the “international Jewish plot.” Shortly thereafter Mahathir fired Anwar Ibrahim, who was tried for corruption and sexual offenses and given a long sentence.
The Jewish leaders demanded that Malaysia establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. The Malaysian UN ambassador and Anwar Ibrahim explained that Malaysia supported Palestinian rights and censured the Netanyahu government. The time was not right to continue working to improve relations, and Malaysia was not ready for normalization.
Additional Jewish organizations condemned Mahathir as an anti-Semite, as did the U.S. State Department. The World Jewish Congress announced that it would file a complaint with the UN Council on Human Rights in Geneva. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning Mahathir for his anti-Semitic remarks.
Mahathir, however, rejected all criticism and did not apologize. The only step taken was an official Malaysian letter, not from Mahathir himself, to the UN Council on Human Rights claiming that Mahathir was incorrectly quoted in the media and “never intended to insult Jews or cause them distress.” Whereas the World Jewish Congress praised the letter and considered the incident closed, Israel did not see it as an adequate apology.
On 21 June 2003, officials of Mahathir’s political party distributed copies of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic book The International Jew to delegates at their annual assembly, where Mahathir delivered a speech. On 16 October that year at a meeting of the OIC in Kuala Lumpur, two weeks before stepping down as prime minister, Mahathir delivered an anti-Semitic diatribe, saying among other things that “the Jews rule the world.” Although many countries outside the OIC objected, he did not retract. The Egyptian foreign minister and other Muslim figures praised his remarks and supported him.31
Nevertheless, during these years the signs of a thaw continued. In 1998 a Malaysian, for the first time since 1965, took a course on community development in Israel.32 In February 2000 two Israeli teams, male and female, participated in a ping pong tournament in Malaysia. The opposition Muslim political party warned the government of “undesirable consequences” and claimed Israel was an “illegal country.” The minister of sport responded that Malaysia could not discriminate against any country if it wished to hold international sport competitions and especially if it wanted to host the Asia Games in 2006. He affirmed that Malaysia’s view of Israel as oppressor of the Palestinians remained in force.
Since succeeding Mahathir as prime minister in October 2003, Dato Seri Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi has reiterated Malaysia’s total support for the Palestinians and severely criticized Israel, though in a style less crude than Mahathir’s. He accused Israel of state terrorism and of inflicting evils on the Palestinians that were starting to resemble the atrocities undergone by the Jews themselves. He said in a speech on 14 September 2005, “We must maintain a distinction between acts of terrorism and the right of people fighting for self-determination,” implying that Palestinian terrorism was justified. He criticized suicide bombings as inexpedient but not as immoral.33
Despite Malaysia’s many provocations regarding Israel, especially during Mahathir’s tenure, the country has not generally been of great interest to Israeli policymakers or to Asia specialists in its Foreign Ministry. Sharett was an exception, and Meir in the 1960s and Rabin in the 1990s also showed some interest. Otherwise prime ministers and foreign ministers have been indifferent, even though Mahathir’s pronouncements in particular could have prompted Israeli countermeasures in the United States.
Malaysian politicians state from time to time state that they will not open diplomatic relations with Israel so long as the Palestinian problem is not solved.
* * *
* This article was translated from Hebrew by Shalom Bronstein.
1. There is a rich literature on the Muslim concept of the ummah. See, e.g., Encyclopedia of Islam, 1st ed., Vol. 8, 1015-16.
2. Israel State Archives Jerusalem (ISA), Foreign Ministry (MFA), File 60/13 (“Israel and Asia,” March 1967 ) [the ISA/MFA material is usually in Hebrew, sometimes in English]; Fred R. von der Mehden, Two Worlds of Islam: Interaction between Southeast Asia and the Middle East (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993), 44-46; N. Ganesan, “Islamic Responses within ASEAN to Singapore’s Foreign Policy,” Asian Thought and Society, Vol. 13, No. 38 (May 1988): 126, 132; G. H. Jansen, Zionism, Israel and Asian Nationalism (Beirut: Institute for Palestinian Studies, 1971), 290.
3. Moshe Sharett, Mission in Asia: Episodes from a Journey (Tel Aviv: Davar, 1964), 101-09. [in Hebrew]
4. ISA/MFA, File 3325/60 (Research Division: “Malaya-Arab-Israel Relations,” a selection from the Arab press, 5 February 1960).
5. ISA/MFA, File 232/21 (M. Yegar: “A Visit in Malaya, August 4-13, 1960″).
6. ISA/MFA, File 3325/60 (E. Ben-Horin, ambassador in Rangoon to Y. Shimoni, director of Asian and African Division, 18 August 1960).
7. ISA/MFA, File 3325/60 (A. Lurie to directors of Asian and British Commonwealth divisions: “A Conversation with the Tunku of Malaya on November 25, 1961,” 27 November 1961).
8. ISA/MFA, File 3419/30 (Golda Meir to Tunku Abdul Rahman, 16 September 1963).
9. For a description of this episode, see Moshe Yegar, Malaysia: Attempts at Dialogue with a Muslim Country (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1996). [in Hebrew]
10. London Public Records Office (PRO)/Foreign Office (FO), Files 371/181478, 371/187553.
11. ISA/MFA File 471/12 (Division of International Cooperation: “Mashav Activities in Asia, 1965,” 6 June 1966); Jerusalem Post, 24 August 1966; Gordon P. Means, Malaysian Politics (New York: New York University Press, 1970), 364, 369; Mehden, Two Worlds, 23, 42.
12. ISA/MFA File 4213/3 (acting director of Asian and African Division to Director-General’s Bureau, 21 August 1968).
13. “Inside Mahathir’s Mind,” Australia/Israel Review, 7-31 December 1993, 6, reprinted from Canberra Times, 1 December 1993; Michael Danby, “Can Mahathir Survive Schindler’s List?” Australia/Israel Review, April 11-24 April 1994, 6-7.
14. James Piscatori, “Asian Islam: International Linkages and Their Impact on International Relations,” in John L. Esposito, ed., Islam in Asia: Religion, Politics and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 244; Mehden, Two Worlds, 46-47; Murugesu Pathamanathan and David Lazarus, Winds of Change: The Mahathir Impact on Malaysia’s Foreign Policy (Kuala Lumpur: Eastview Productions Sdn, 1984), 39, 49, 62, 143-45, 203-05, 215, 217-21, 224, 231-32, 243, 250-51 (a collection of Mahathir’s addresses on foreign policy issues).
15. Michael Leifer, “Israel’s President in Singapore: Catalysis and Transnational Politics,” Pacific Review, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1988): 347; Barbara Crosette, “Minorities in Malaysia Seek More Liberal Policies,” New York Times, 28 September 1986; International Herald Tribune, 24 March 1994
16. “Muslim Sensitivities Surface,” Pacific Defense Register, Vol. 13, No. 8 (February 1987): 11.
17. Many reports on this issue were published almost daily from 23 March 1994 until the end of the month and even later in the newspapers of Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia and in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, and Wall Street Journal.
18. New Straits Times, 16 December 1993; The Straits Times, 16, 30 September, 19 October, 29 December 1993; Jakarta Post, 13-15 September 1993; Indonesian, 19 October, 21 May 1993; Observer, 15 September, 19 October 1993; Indonesian Times, 7 July 1994.
19. Reports on this matter were published almost daily from 19 June 1994 until the end of July in the newspapers of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
20. Reports on the Rabin-Mahathir correspondence and reactions in Malaysia were published on 19-22, 25 June 1994; 1, 19 July 1994; 6, 14-15 August 1994; 3 October 1994 in the newspapers of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
21. “Israeli Woman Can Enter KL for Child Abuse Forum,” Jakarta Post, 12 September 1994.
22. The Straits Times, 25-26 October 1994; 3, 10-11 November 1994; 2 December 1994; 18 February 1995. Similar news items appeared in other newspapers on the same dates in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
23. Indonesian Observer, 3 June 1995.
24. Sunday Star, 18 September 1994, 14 January 1996; The Straits Times, 19, 21 September 1994, 27 January 1996; The Star, 22 November 1994, 27 January 1996; Indonesian Observer, 15 January 1996; Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), 25 January 1996, 13.
25. Michael Bociurkiw, “Up to You, Israel Tells Kuala Lumpur,” Asia Times, 30 January 1996.
26. David Lipkin, “A Businessman from Malaysia,” Ma’ariv, February 25, 1996. [in Hebrew]
27. The Straits Times, 8, 22 June 1996; The Star, 22 June, 14 November 1996, 2 February 1997; Economic and Business Review Indonesia, 29 January 1997; Business Times, 21 November 1996; New Straits Times, 14 November 1996, 2 March 1997.
28. The Straits Times, 5, 9 April1997; New Straits Times, 6, 12 April, 29 May 1997; FEER, 10 April 1997.
29. The Sunday Times, 29 September 1996.
30. The Straits Times, 6, 27 August 1997; New York Times, 16 October 1997.
31. Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), New York (NY) Archives (Harriet Mandel memos and correspondence October-November 1996 and April 1997); The Sunday Times, 12, 14 October, 2 November 1997; The Straits Times, 15, 17 October, 11 November 1997, 1 March 1998; Jakarta Post, 14, 15 October 1997; FEER, 23 October 1997; Asiaweek, 28 November 1997, 26 December 1997-2 January 1998; Reuters, 21 June 2003. For a survey of Mahathir’s anti-Semitism, see Manfred Gerstenfeld, “The Mahathir Affair: A Case Study in Mainstream Islamic Anti-Semitism,” Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 506, November 2003.
32. The Straits Times, 24, 27 February 2000.
33. Gershon Baskin, “A Flashing Red Light from Malaysia,” Jerusalem Post (online edition), 4 April 2005; BBC News, 11 October 2005.
The author is grateful to Tamas Berzi for assistance in obtaining up-to-date information on Prime Minister Badawi and his pronouncements.
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DR. MOSHE YEGAR joined the Israeli Foreign Service in 1956 and retired in 1995. He served, among other places, as consul-general in New York (1985-1988), ambassador in Stockholm (1988-1990), and ambassador in Prague (1993-1995). He is the author of three books on Islam in Southeast Asia and five books on various issues of Israel’s foreign policy. His most recent book (in Hebrew) is on the history of Israel’s diplomacy in Asia.