Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2012, Pages 45-46

Islam and the Near East in the Far East

Malaysian Revelations Highlight Price of Israeli Rejectionism

By John Gee

altMalaysians hold placards and shout slogans at a Land Day rally outside Kuala Lumpur in support of Palestine, March 30, 2012. (Isaeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

Three letters from Malaysia's former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamed to his Israeli counterparts were published Feb. 29 by the Malaysian Foreign Ministry. They were released as a result of bitter exchanges between the ruling Barisan Nasional Alliance and the opposition, as the country gears up for its next general election. Each side had accused the other of supporting the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel and of having covert dealings with it. The government released the letters to show that, while it had held open the door to normalizing relations with Israel, this would not be at the expense of the sacrifice of the Palestinians' rights.

The first letter was sent to Yitzhak Rabin, then prime minister of Israel, on Dec. 21, 1993, two and a half months after Rabin signed the Declaration of Principles alongside PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and they stood before the world's media along with President Bill Clinton on the White House lawn. The Malaysian prime minister acknowledged with thanks a letter from Rabin and wrote of the PLO-Israel moves:

"My government supports this positive development and views it as a first step toward the realization of a comprehensive solution to the Middle East problem."

After pledging Malaysian financial and technical support to the Palestinians to help implement the agreement, Mahathir wrote:

Malaysia as a matter of general principle is prepared to develop relations with Israel at the appropriate time. In the meantime, we would like to see tangible progress in the implementation of the peace agreement.

The Middle East problem particularly the Palestinian issue has been a cause of instability to the region and I hope the recent agreement between Israel and PLO would contribute to lasting peace to the area.

I look forward to normal relations with Israel.

The last line was added in handwriting.

Three years later, Rabin was dead and Netanyahu was Israel's prime minister. He evidently had written to Mahathir, and the next letter in the series was Mahathir's reply, dated March 14, 1997. The tone was distinctly different, though it continued to favor peaceful dialogue over violence:

Malaysia believes in peace and in settlement of problems between neighbors through negotiations. As a last resort, we turn to third parties. In disputes over territories between Malaysia and Singapore and Malaysia and Indonesia we have agreed to get the World Court to decide. Dispute between Malaysia and Thailand over territorial waters was resolved by agreeing to share the non-marine resources equally.

Within the country, disparities in wealth distribution between the indigenous people and those of immigrant origins were resolved through affirmative action in which the have nots would have a bigger share of a growing economic cake but there would be no expropriation and redistribution of what already belonged to the descendants of immigrants. Everyone has very nearly a fair share now and everyone is fairly satisfied. Relations between the different races in Malaysia are good and not disruptive.

The important point I would like to stress is not to take what already belongs to others even though historically they may be yours. Lately, Israel has been pulling down Arab dwellings in order to erect houses for Israelis. The whole world, including your ally, the United States condemns this. But Israel has gone ahead.

You condemn Syria for making threats. But their threats are the response to your own action. If you forcibly take over land and property belonging to the Palestinians, the only response if they are not to violently act against you, is to threaten to act against you. If they cannot retaliate and they cannot voice their intended retaliation, then they would have to submit to all your action no matter how wrong. What you are doing now is against the spirit and the letter of the peace process agreed to by your predecessor. How can we trust Israel if a change in the government negates solemnly given undertakings by a Government of Israel. Please reconsider your decision to build new Jewish settlements on Arab land.

After referring to the presence of a delegation of young Israelis in Malaysia, Mahathir went on:

We should remember that when Jews were persecuted in Europe, they had always found sanctuary among Muslims in Muslim countries. We don't regard Israelis as eternal enemies. But we cannot help but sympathize with the Palestinians because their land is being taken away from them now. It may have belonged to Jews three thousand years ago. A lot of traditional Malay lands have been made part of Thailand. But we are not claiming southern Thailand as part of Malaysia. If we go too far into the past we cannot live with our neighbors.

We are ready to have economic and technological cooperation with Israel but we cannot do so yet because you have not honored commitments made by a legitimate Government of Israel. We would like to think that once we have established relations with you, it would be permanent.

The third letter was sent on June 8, 1999 to Ehud Barak, newly victorious in the 1999 Israeli general election. This time, the initiative to make contact was Mahathir's. He clearly hoped for a decisive change in Israeli policy, with Netanyahu out of office. He wrote that:

...[I]f the peace process is to be salvaged, sincere and effective steps must be taken to honor commitments.

As an important partner in the peace process it is crucial for Israel to be more accommodating. The Palestinians have made major sacrifices. They no longer demand the elimination of Israel. They are even prepared to share Jerusalem with you. It is therefore timely that Israel respond positively so as to sustain the hopes of the people in both Palestine and Israel. Solemn commitments made by a previous Goverment must be honored. The alternative I am afraid, would be a permanent state of conflict and regional instability extending into the next century. This is certainly a prospect that must be avoided.

The crux of the problem is that no party should revert to the old ways of taking what belongs to others, on the one hand and instigating hatred and violence, on the other. Malaysia cannot countenance aggression by anyone, whether friend or foe. Any country that forcibly takes over land and properties of others, or demolishes dwellings belonging to others in order to set up its own settlements cannot be said to be sincere in wanting peace.

Malaysia is of the firm conviction that the security of all countries in West Asia can only be assured with the establishment of a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace in the region. This must be based on the principle of "exchange of land for peace" and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The world looks foward to Israel under your leadership, to push foward the peace process with true determination. It is my sincere hope that the attainment of a comprehensive settlement in the region would allow Malaysia to realistically envisage a positive move toward the establishment of normal relations with Israel.

The letters show that, far from demonstrating unrelenting hostility toward Israel, Mahathir was fully prepared to normalize relations with an Israel reconciled to accepting Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He didn't even raise the issue of the right of return of Palestinians exiled since 1948. This was the position taken by most of the other Arab and Muslim countries, in fact. Even Iran, Israel's arch bogeyman, indicated that it would be bound to accept the decision of the Palestinians on a settlement with Israel, however much it might disagree with them.

There was a time when pro-Israel commentators never seemed to tire of criticizing Palestinian leaders for "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity." If this phrase recently has been heard less, it is perhaps because it could so easily be used to describe the position of Israel's own governments. They could have had peace and diplomatic relations with almost every country in the world if they had only genuinely committed themselves to withdrawal from the lands occupied in 1967. Instead they took the path of expanding the settlements, holding land and repressing the resistance that was the natural and inevitable consequence of their policies.

India Bans Leading Israeli Arms Maker

State-owned Israel Military Industries was one of six companies barred for 10 years from doing business with the Indian armed forces. The March 5 announcement banned the six for paying kickbacks to Sudipta Ghosh, former director-general of India's state-run Ordnance Factory Board. According to the Ministry of Defense, "The firms were recommended for blacklisting by the Central Bureau of Investigation on the basis of evidence collected against them."

The firms, from Israel, Singapore, Switzerland, Russia and India itself, were each given a chance to respond to the evidence against them. The ban was imposed after their replies had been considered and found to be "unsatisfactory."

The bribes first came to light in 2009, and led to a freeze on existing projects, including a $24 million scheme to set up five factories to produce propellants for the large-caliber artillery operated by the Indian army, according to a UPI report.

During the first decades of India's independence, the country took a firm stand in support of the rights of the Palestinians, but after the Janata party, with its Hindu communalist elements, took office, a more sympathetic attitude toward Israel prevailed. Though India continued its support for the U.N.'s resolutions on Palestine, relations with Israel developed apace in the economic and military spheres. Israel has become the second largest supplier of weaponry to India, after Russia. How big a dent the bar on IMI will make remains to be seen.

John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore, and the author of Unequal Conflict: The Palestinians and Israel.