Photo Credit: Presidential Communications Operations Office, Philippines
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

by Mara Vigevani

The controversial president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, known for his strongman politics and inflammatory statements — from admitting to killing people to joking about rape — lands in Israel Sunday evening for a four-day official visit.

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He will be the first leader of the Philippines to visit Israel since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1957. Following his four-day visit, Duterte is scheduled to visit Jordan.

During his visit, Duterte is slated to discuss tourism, labor and defense deals, and to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center.

Duterte will arrive with a large delegation, including his defense and foreign affairs ministers and more than 150 Philippine business people.

The Phillipines is planning a multi-billion dollar overhaul of its armed forces, and Israel is reportedly looking to significantly increase sales of military hardware to the island nation.

Last year the Philippines purchased some $21 million worth of radar equipment and anti-tank missiles from Israel. Overall trade ties between the countries are relatively insignificant, currently standing at less than $200 million.

One of the main items on the agenda from Israel’s perspective will be convincing Duterte to move the Philippine Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“I will not be surprised if during the visit the president will issue a notice about the embassy’s move to Jerusalem,” Dr. Ofer Israeli, International Security Policy and Middle East Expert at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, told TPS. “ Some of the reasons [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu promotes relations with countries that are not completely democratic and provides them a certain rehabilitation is to have more embassies in Jerusalem.”

The Philippines abstained on a United Nations vote earlier this year rebuking the United States for moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

The delegation will also discuss the opening of a direct flight route between ‎Manila and Tel Aviv, with the aim of sharply increasing the number of pilgrims arriving from the predominantly Catholic Southeast Asian archipelago.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the sides will also sign an agreement regulating the employment of thousands of Filipino caregivers and to ‎allow Filipinos to work in Israel’s hotel industry, which suffers from a major manpower shortage.‎

Despite the criticism Duterte’s visit has sparked in Israel and abroad, the Foreign Ministry issued statement warmly welcoming the visit, minimizing his record of invectives and promoting the role of the Philippines in saving Jews during the Second World War, and commercial and military ties between the countries.

“Israel welcomes the visit in Jerusalem of the President of the Republic of the Philippines,” the statement read, adding that the visit had been timed to mark several important events, among them the 80-year anniversary of the Philippines opening its gates and providing sanctuary to ‎Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis; the 70-year anniversary of the Philippines’ support of UN Resolution 181 – the ‎Partition Plan – on 29 November 1947 and the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel ‎and the Philippines.

As well as meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu, Duterte will also meet with President Reuven Rivlin, meet with Filipinos workers in Israel, and take part in a ceremony inaugurating a monument which commemorates the Philippines’ rescue of Jews during World War II.

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