Op Eds & Articles

The Case for Malaysia-Israel Relations: The Politics of Engagement
By: By Aiman Zarul
May 1, 2011
The Case for Malaysia-Israel Relations: The Politics of Engagement

Aiman Zarul is a visiting student at Columbia University, New York. He was previously with the political section at the European Union Delegation in Malaysia, and is a founder of the Caucus for the Improvement of Malaysia-Israel Relations that advocates culturo-religious cooperation between Muslims and Jews through Malaysia-Israel engagement in economics, politics and social interaction.

Read the second article in this series

“The Israeli commandos shot the activists point blank and even from the back, and this is an act of a coward that cannot be forgiven. These blatant acts occurred because the world gangsters, Israel, feel they are protected by a world power.”

– Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak on  Israel’s interception of the Gaza Flotilla,  June 2010.

A scathing indictment by any measure, it was not always like this. For in its formative years, independent Malaya (which attained independence in 1957 and subsequently became present-day Malaysia in 1963) and Israel shared a cordial, if furtively unofficial, relationship that came short of full diplomatic ties. As the 1960s progressed however, the exigencies of Southeast Asia’s geopolitical architecture presented by an openly hostile and pro-communist Indonesia to the south and west as well as a revanchist Philippines to the east compelled Malaysia’s leaders to look to ideologically-consonant and co-religionist monarchies in the Arab world for support and legitimacy – receipt of which expectedly came at the price of Malaysia’s sinful soirée with Israel.

Yet, since Malaysia abnegated all direct contact with Israel in 1965, and notwithstanding its enduring antipathetic stance towards the Jewish state (particularly during the 1981-2003 premiership of Mahathir Mohamed), Malaysia has all but unequivocally ruled out all prospects for relations with Israel in categorical terms. From an Israeli perspective, this may indicate some discomfitingly opaque possibility for engagement at some unspecified point in the future, but it should not generate much surprise. On the contrary, whilst the constitution of Malaysia’s political arena makes routine excoriations against Israel an electorally expedient enterprise, a closer look at the kinds of forces that drive Malaysian politics reveals that it would not only be impertinent for Malaysia to categorically abjure all semblances of engagement with Israel, but even harmful to contemporary conceptions of Malaysian national security that have tended to encompass the welfare and security of the greater Muslim ummah.

Whither, Pragmatism?

Far from disregarding all accepted bounds of political reason, Malaysia’s 45 year-strong intransigence raises an interesting premise. By eschewing relations with Israel and by openly admonishing Israel for its perceived injustices towards the Palestinians, one could contend that Malaysia is sacrificing a considerable degree of foreign policy pragmatism in order to uphold a far loftier and urgent cause that transcends contrastingly bagatelle questions of Semitic-oriented preferences: the preservation of its Western-aligned pluralistic political fabric that champions secularism over fundamentalist theocratism and which derives its existential logic from such Euro-American concepts as constitutionalism, the rule of law and accountable government. If this argument holds any credence, then by doing the “dirty work” of erecting an antipathetic façade against Israel (and in a much more nuanced way, Israel’s political benefactors in the West), the ruling National Alliance government is effectively genuflecting the religiously conservative and outspokenly pro-Palestinian Muslim Malay majority, and hence removing from the professedly anti-secular Islamic opposition’s political arsenal a highly valuable and efficient electoral weapon: depiction (irrespective of accuracy) of the ruling coalition as both a client of Israel and an accommodationist to Zionist aspirations. There is no doubt that an ascendance to political prominence by the Islamic opposition (a feat that has largely eluded it since the inception of organized politics in Malaysia) will put tremendous pressure on the government to ratchet up its relatively benign and sporadic anti-Israel/-Zionist rhetoric from a level sufficiently and practicably serves its ad hoc political needs to a more pronounced policy of unequivocal anti-Semitism that encompasses a much broader scope of anti-Western posturing.

Presently, as a means of deflecting pugnacious charges of institutionalized anti-Semitism that threaten to scupper Malaysia’s much-vaunted aspirations of joining the rung of economically advanced nations by 2020, the National Alliance government moderates its stance towards Jewry in general, harnessing international media opportunities –often painstakingly– to portray itself as friends of ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionist Jewish congregations such as the charedi Jews (the Neturei Karta group being one such prominent embodiment) and personalities such as Professor Noam Chomsky. At the Peace in Palestine conference held in the Malaysian administrative capital, Putrajaya, in March 2005 for instance, there was a broad consensus among the six charedi academics and religious figures specially invited by the Malaysian government to represent the Jewish anti-Zionist lobby (including five Israeli nationals) that Zionism represented the singular root cause of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian confrontation; the charge sufficiently cogent to warrant an endorsement of the conference’s resolution calling for the selective boycott of and divestment from all forms of Israeli economic activity. Likewise, when a senior Malaysian government official made anti-Semitic remarks in October 2008, it was the unsavory prospect of the egregious remarks blotching Malaysia’s image in the eyes of its foreign trade partners rather than any undesired domestic political implications that prompted Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s administration to speedily sanction the official in a rare public display of dissociation by the government from the actions of one of its rank and file. Needless to say, the indeterminable nature in which official attitudes to Israel have shifted over the last few years – from one of unflinching, obstreperous opposition to a qualified albeit grudgingly silent acceptance of Israel’s legal existence– has polarized members of Malaysian academia and ordinary Malaysians alike, opened an intellectual chasm in the popular Malaysian consciousness over questions of Israel’s legal status as a nation-state (which is gaining greater acknowledgement as more Malaysians receive Western legal educations that align them with Westphalian notions of state sovereignty) vis-à-vis its moral legitimacy as an ethno-theological construct, and sparked once non-existent debates on Israel’s place in an evolving Malaysian foreign policy.

Unremarkable as it may otherwise seem, the government’s nuanced recognition of this ‘legal-moral’ debate betokens an incipient calculativeness in Malaysian foreign policymaking: a calculativeness that is consistent with the Malaysian foreign policy conceptions sketched by region experts such as Michael Leifer, Shanti Nair and Helen Nesadurai that locate political survivability at the center of most if not every foreign policy maneuver. Malaysia’s foreign policymakers do not enjoy the luxury of being able to indulge in foreign policy experimentation and risk-taking, especially where such adventurism runs the risk of tarnishing the country’s cherished Islamic identity. The leveling-out of the domestic political playing field since 1998 has accentuated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s ideological significance for both sides of the political spectrum, and since 1998 Malaysia observers have been treated to a deft display of realpolitik by the country’s political elite, the latter adeptly varying its anti-Israel tempo in rhythm with fluctuations in the electoral fortunes of the Islamic opposition – whilst leaving the door just sufficiently ajar to allow for intermittent and tacit exchanges between Kuala Lumpur and Jerusalem (the July 2009 meeting between the Malaysian and Israeli defense ministers in Paris was just one, though certainly not the first, such episode). Moreover, this is all happening against the backdrop of an unchanging official policy that conditions any form of bilateral engagement on a seismic shift in the Palestinian status quo that would sufficiently temper Malay opposition to a dialogue with Israel.

By this account, contrary to the views of skeptical Malaysia observers, pragmatism as a defining quality in Malaysian foreign policymaking did not tumble into a precipitous decline with the ouster of Israel’s sole Malaysian representative in 1965, and can even be said to have flourished in the face of Mahathir’s twin Islamic revivalism and Islamic internationalist policies in the 1980s and 1990s as well as the inertia years of the Badawi administration to remain very much extant today. How do we explain this pragmatism? One method involves the use of a closed causal model that preconditions any Malaysian engagement with Israel on the acceptance by the electorally dominant Malay Muslim community of Israel’s legal and normative legitimacy, the attainment of a permanent and satisfactorily comprehensive outcome in Palestine being the sine qua non of this acceptance. In other words, so long as the Palestinians are seen to being accorded an objectively just settlement of their political and territorial grievances with Israel that is both durable and sufficiently comprehensive, this causal model presupposes that Malaysia’s Malays will rationally conclude that Israel has expiated for what former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami calls its “original sins”, and would consequently be deserving (so to speak) of Malaysian diplomatic outreach. For the Malaysian government, this would be the popular mandate for it to commence direct and open dialogue with the Jewish state.

It’s Hard Being Pragmatic

But as the realities of our arguably Westphalian era have demonstrated time and again, infallible pragmatism in foreign policymaking is an illusory enterprise and as useful as hypothetical models such as the aforementioned causal model may be in gauging the foreign policy responses of individual states as an amplification of national consensuses, such explanatory devices along with the assumptions that undergird them are far from watertight. Discrepancies within our own model present us with two particular challenges.

For one, what sort of “satisfactorily comprehensive outcome” are we talking about? Where should the attendant thresholds be set? Whilst the Malay race is unique in its religious homogeneity (the Malaysian constitution defines a Malay as, inter alia, an adherent of the Islamic faith), the inveterately religious constitution of the Malay psyche has in recent decades been subjected to a massive political conditioning exercise counter-waged by the two opposing political camps. This conditioning has, apart from ideologizing the otherwise apolitical Malay character, produced a tendency for varying individual interpretations of Islam to coexist with a political heterogeneity that itself is liable to religionization. Different cross-sections of Malay society across the economic spectrum harbor divergent perceptions of the Middle Eastern geopolitical reality, and differences in the value orientations of each cross-section’s constituents in turn affect both the rationality of their responses to displays of Israeli continence as well as their pliability to the Malaysian government’s own responses to Israeli wherewithal. Whilst a conceivable proportion of Western-educated, middle class and cosmopolitan Malays may see a ‘post-Palestine’ Israel as a potential reservoir of commercial and touristic opportunities (save for certain restrictively narrow exceptions, Malaysian law bars Malaysians from entering Israel) and are more likely to dissociate inherently private norms of spirituality from the corruptible temporal principles of secular politics, Malays who occupy the lower rungs of the economic order are just as likely to view Western democratic-capitalist culture and the globalization movement as dangerously antithetical to Islamic values, and are also more likely to oppose any efforts towards normalizing relations with Israel on the premise that it would betray God’s perceived material favor towards Malaysia and abnegate on Malaysia’s self-assigned obligations, formulated during the Mahathir era, to the greater global ummah that cut across secular notions of citizenship and sovereign territoriality.

The ensuing sensitivity surrounding the question of normalization has stymied the arguments of the pro-normalizationists and further buttressed the efforts of anti-normalizationists in preserving the status quo. Taking over the reins of government over a burgeoning civil society, the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak (who assumed the premiership in April 2009) has promulgated sweeping intramural reforms within the governing coalition and prioritized outreach to the Malay intellectual class who had felt alienated by the conservative policies of Prime Minister Badawi and consequently re-aligned themselves with the with the ostensibly liberal agendas of the opposition coalition. But it embarks on this self-reinvigoration campaign in the knowledge that sacrificing any measure of support from its core, grassroots Malay working class constituency in order to appear more palatable to the Malay intellectual class bears neither short- nor long-term viability due to the immense electoral leverage wielded by the Malay working class. In the present Malaysian government we thus see a cautious balancer who is careful to avoid being seen as setting anything remotely resembling a tangible threshold of “satisfactoriness” that risks being rejected by anti-normalizationists and derided by the Islamic opposition on the one hand, and dismissed by unimpressed pro-normalizationsists as “too little too late” on the other. At best, it has purposively attempted to articulate the “comprehensive settlement” condition in oblique terms in a bid to appease pragmatists and those who see the present state of Malaysia-Israel relations as untenable.

Missed Opportunities

Whereas the period immediately following the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization witnessed a number of Muslim states take exploratory steps towards relations with Israel (the most prominent of course being Jordan in 1994), Malaysia opted to demur, its Deputy Foreign Minister stating in parliament in October 1995 that

Though Malaysia believes that the implementation of the peace treaty between Palestine and Israel is encouraging, however at this time Malaysia is not yet prepared to have official relations with Israel. Malaysia had even prior to this wished to see Israel fully implement all agreements made with the Palestinians before it can make any decisions on having relations with Israel.

It was against a backdrop of pervasive optimism emanating from the events in Oslo that Malaysia found itself confronted for the first time since the 1960s with the prospect of establishing relations with Israel. Unlike his Indonesian counterpart, Abdurrahman Wahid, who received Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Jakarta in October 1993, Mahathir elected to buck the emerging trend of détente with Israel, choosing instead to underscore the centrality of the “comprehensive solution” condition to any Malaysian intervention. By relegating the Oslo Accords to an inchoate role in the process of complete disabusement of Palestinian indignity, the Mahathir administration managed to circumvent the politically inhospitable territory associated with reassessing the realities of Malaysia-Israel relations. Yet, as a series of positive Malaysian gestures interspersing the Oslo Accords and the 1997 financial crisis illustrate (ranging from an uncharacteristic tolerance of Rabin’s Singaporean and Indonesian visits in 1993 to Malaysia’s hosting of the Israeli national cricket squad in 1997), a different game was being played behind the scenes, with the Malaysian foreign policymaking apparatus testing the proverbial waters ahead of a possible dialogue with Israel that would take place within the secure contours of a burgeoning economy and political longevity of Mahathir’s National Alliance administration.

The end of Israel’s so-called liberal honeymoon and the accession of Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party in 1996 dislocated any nascent Malaysian optimism for bilateral dialogue cultivated in the dying days of Israel’s Labor administration. Netanyahu’s paradigmatically opposite approach to Israeli-Palestinian interaction diminished Malaysian appetites for further experimentation and ushered in a renewed phase of perceptive dissonance that drove home the injunctions of anti-normalizationists. The 1997-8 Malaysian economic crisis fomented a perceptible nationalism that derived much of its rationale from an officially-endorsed vilification campaign against Jewish American financier George Soros and which (in)famously culminated in Mahathir’s polemical “Jews rule the world by proxy” address in 2003. Against this hostile backdrop, Malaysia again found itself confronted with the prospect of engaging Israel in the wake of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Just as in 1993, this Israeli gesture provided barely enough maneuvering space for several Muslim states, most notably Pakistan, to tease out avenues for improved relations with Israel. As in 1993, Malaysia remained impassive, Foreign Minister Syed Albar intimating more dismissively than in 1995 that “we shouldn’t simply consider that the problems in (the Palestinian territories) have been solved because of the Gaza pullout, which is a small step”. Israel’s attempt to use the Gaza disengagement as a foreign policy stimulant in Southeast Asia’s Islamic heartland appeared to fall on itself, its Malaysian interlocutors in particular finding themselves to have reached a point inhospitable to dialogue from which it was proving prohibitively difficult to extricate.

Outside Influences

The other problem, and one that goes some way to explaining the observed variance in Malaysian foreign policy attitudes, is that our causal model is not closed in reality. External players, influences and obligations are invariably at play, some of which may serve to detract –however inadvertently– Malaysian foreign policy from the pursuit of national interests undiluted by external imperatives. Some of these extraneous influences are readily discernable: the permeation of values rooted in Arab political culture and Islamic norms into Malaysia’s decision-making apparatus, Malaysia’s growing involvement in the global Islamic discourse and Kuala Lumpur’s desire to preserve its influence and prestige within multilateral fora such as the Organization of the Islamic Caucus (OIC), the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Developing 8 group of pioneering Islamic economies. In addition, there is Malaysia’s South-South and ‘Look East’ posturing that is arguably more reflective of the social justice and Third World activism of the Mahathir administration than of any narrower interests-based imperative.

In many senses, the permeation of moderate Islamic influences throughout the various streams of Malaysian public life should be viewed as a laudable phenomenon at best, and an innocuous development at the very least. The twin pressures on the establishment to embrace seemingly antithetical Islamic and Euro-American values has led it to construct a moderate and progressive Islamic ethos that co-opts technological innovation and pluralist ideas – the active promotion and exportation of which has portrayed Malaysia as a responsible, socially sustainable and ideologically neutral par excellence of progressive Islamic state. Nonetheless, expanded Malaysian identification with what Islamologists such as Bassam Tibi, Amr Sabet and Peter Mandaville term Islamist internationalism comes at a price; a disproportionate emphasis on an idealistic foreign policy that draws heavily from religion and other considerations exogenous to orthodox international political practice affects the strategic logic and efficacy of Malaysian foreign policy choices and potentially compromises Malaysia’s long-standing commitments to the universalist values of organizations such as ASEAN, the Commonwealth and even NAM – all in whom Malaysia can trace a long and illustrious membership.

Pragmatism at any Cost?

In the end then, for the necessary conditions permitting Malaysia-Israel engagement to arise, the divergence of our closed causal model from the empirical reality needs to be considerably narrowed. Essentially, two processes need to take place.

The first is a process of education. Recognizing that Malaysian foreign policy is overwhelmingly driven by domestic political currents, the Najib administration should make a purposeful attempt to rein in widespread preconceived perceptions of Judaism and even Zionism as being nefarious, anti-Islamic enterprises. Ideally, related initiatives should incorporate educational and awareness-building tools that will help engender the necessary perceptive rupture. This must be a holistic effort that identifies and reforms those underlying sources of Israelphobia that are grafted into social institutions: the national educational curriculum that caricatures Israel as the execrable dross left behind by retreating colonial powers, media orientations that are ideologically tilted against Israel’s oft-labeled “Zionist regime”, and censorship laws that are lax towards patently anti-Semitic publications and literature that explicitly endorses the militant methodologies employed by Hamas and Hezbollah. Unconstructive vilification of Israel on its own merits fails as a sustainable policy tool and actually does more harm by hardening hostile attitudes towards Jews and Israel to the detriment of a constructive Malaysian role in the Middle East peace process. The recent political clamor over the nuanced similarities between the Najib administration’s 1Malaysia program and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s One Israel movement illustrates how even banal and adventitious allusions to the Israeli state can perpetuate inherently local socio-political rifts. To be sure, a shift in Malaysian attitudes will also be contingent on the kinds of signals emitted by Israel in its own dealings with the Palestinians, and whilst events such as the 2005 Gaza disengagement may strengthen the case for Malaysian entertainment of Israeli requests for relations, such pockets of opportunity are easily undermined by sudden turns of events. The interception in May 2010 of the Gaza-bound aid flotilla vessels Mavi Marmara and Rachel Corrie, the detention and subsequent expulsion of seventeen Malaysians and a violent backdrop of the loss of nine lives for the first time directly exposed Malaysians to Israel’s security machinery, and notwithstanding Israeli justifications of events, provided the impetus for mobilizing all outlets of Malaysian society across the ethnic compass against what was seen to be the most glaring illustration yet of Israeli iniquity.

The second is a process of policy reappraisal. The Malaysian government should re-conceptualize the political context in which it recognizes a nascent Palestinian state. Crucial to this is a recognition on the Najib administration’s part that the shifting realities of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, distorted by the bifurcation of the Palestinian territories into two noncontiguous and politically fractious entities, have rendered previous Malaysian governments’ policies of activist opposition to Israel on behalf of a single Palestinian polity largely redundant. Malaysia’s policy of recognizing both the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip conveniently avoids the opprobrium of having to endorse one Palestinian polity (along with its attendant civil structures) over the other, depoliticizes Malaysian interest in Palestinian affairs and allows Malaysian leaders the moral vantage of being able to claim representation of all Palestine. But the robust relationship with the Hamas administration that this state of affairs facilitates risks harming Malaysia’s relations with its moderate Arab partners and Western allies. Similarly, Malaysia’s monetary, humanitarian and technical assistance to non-partisan causes may appeal to ordinary Palestinians on both sides of the factional cleavage, but this approach is centered more on crisis alleviation than crisis resolution

Malaysia needs to re-assess its policy, replacing its activist stance with a proactive approach that enables cooperation between Israel and a Muslim country such as itself in expanding Palestinian assistance beyond the limited parameters of humanitarian aid and into the unchartered realm of coordinated efforts in infrastructural improvement and capacity-building. Apertures of opportunity exist for Malaysian technical assistance in rationalizing Palestinian institutional bases and in eliminating rent-seeking, and until Palestine makes an internationally-mediated and peaceful transition to statehood Malaysia should explore every available avenue for an enhanced involvement in the Palestinian territories – including novel routes such as engagement with Israel. This way, Malaysia will not only be preserving its moderate, dynamic qualities for its own posterity, but will also be sharing the dividends of a similarly progressive diplomacy with the most important stakeholders of Middle East peace: Palestinians and Israelis, co-existing as two separate sovereign entities. Moreover, any fortuitous advances towards a Muslim-Jewish rapprochement that may result would come as a premium. Properly and rationally effected, a paradigm shift of the magnitude suggested above will invariably necessitate a re-evaluation of the embedded precepts and methodologies familiar to Malaysian policymakers, but I at least believe that the ground-breaking benefits to be had from this exercise make the short-term inconveniences that will incur a price well worth paying.

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