PRESIDENT Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino 3rd often gripes about his critics, whom he accuses of being overly focused on the negatives and of failing to offer solutions to the problems that they complain about. One remedy for the weary President is to focus more on foreign policy, beginning with the strengthening of relations with Israel. Doing so seems timely. The Netanyahu government, which recently won a fresh mandate, is turning to Asia in a big way, so says a high-ranking Israeli official during a visit to Manila not long ago.
Even without a special occasion, the Philippines should improve relations with Israel, especially on the economic front. Israel is an industrialized economy worth more than $273 billion. It has much to offer not only in agricultural expertise, but also in high technology. Moreover, Filipinos, along with the rest of the world, have much to learn about entrepreneurship from Israelis. According to the book Start-Up Nation, Israel produces more start-ups than Japan, China, South Korea, India and the UK – despite having virtually no natural resources, a small population of 7.1 million, and a number of tough neighbors.
We should revisit our historical ties to Israel. Until today, Israelis commemorate the decision of President Manuel Quezon to welcome Jewish refugees from Europe before the outbreak of World War II. And when Israelis celebrate their independence day next month, few Filipinos will probably remember that the Philippines played a crucial role in the creation of their country. In 1947, the Philippines cast the crucial vote to pass the UN resolution that partitioned Palestine and gave birth to the state of Israel. Largely in appreciation of that vote, Israel continues to allow visa-free entry to Filipinos. But getting there is difficult and more expensive, because there are no direct flights between Manila and Tel-Aviv, despite the fact that there is an air agreement between the Philippines and Israel.
Now is the time to renew old friendships as Israel pivots to Asia. The Philippines can offer to be its gateway to the region, in particular to the Asean market of some 600 million people. The Philippines, being an old friend, should be the natural choice of Israelis coming to do business in Asia. Besides, our economy has attracted much attention because of its rapid growth and bright outlook.
For sure, enhancing economic relations and closing deals with Israeli investors require more than sentimental memories of past deeds. But in Asia, business is built on friendships. Granted, the Philippines faces tough competition from other investment destinations that are bigger economically and more stable politically. Worse, the Philippines has a host of problems, like poor infrastructure, high power costs, and other issues that President Aquino seems overly sensitive about when media reports about them. Fortunately for the President, many of our problems can be presented as opportunities to foreign investors. And despite his plunging popularity ratings at home, we believe that the Aquino name still carries weight with most in the international community. We can only hope that President Aquino learns from past leaders who found success in foreign policy work despite struggling with problems on the home front. If nothing else, rekindling friendships with countries like Israel can be far more productive.