Recent comments by Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim have demonstrated yet again how issues related to Israel continue to divide this majority-Muslim country – and could influence the country’s next national election. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Anwar responded to the question of whether he would open diplomatic ties with Israel by stating his “support” for “efforts to protect the security of the state of Israel,” while at the same time backing the “legitimate rights of the Palestinians.” He stopped short of saying he would establish diplomatic relations between the two states – what he describes as a “tricky” issue – and stated that any change to the status quo would remain contingent on Israel recognizing the aspirations of the Palestinians. Malaysia is one of three Southeast Asian nations including Indonesia and Brunei that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, though limited economic ties exist between private companies in both countries. “Some refuse to recognize the state of Israel,” he said, “but I think our policy should be clear – protect the security [of Israel] but you must be as firm in protecting the legitimate interests of the Palestinians.” The comments triggered a storm of debate and criticism, with members of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and other groups accusing the leader of abandoning the Palestinian cause – an emotive cause long-supported in the majority-Muslim Southeast Asian nation.
Lawmakers called on Mr. Anwar’s opposition coalition to release an official statement on the issue, while president of the right-wing Malay group Perkasa Ibrahim Ali said he would raise the issue in Parliament. Mr. Anwar responded by saying he supported a “two-state solution” with Palestine, a policy he said was no different from the official stance adopted by the United Nations and Malaysia itself. “I am issuing a stern warning to anyone trying to twist my statement just so that they can say that I have betrayed the aspirations of the Palestinian people,” he said in a statement to the press. His party’s stand “is to defend the rights of whoever it is that has been victimised,” the statement said. Though an ethnically-diverse nation that practices freedom of religion, Malaysia has declared Islam as its state religion and tensions over Israel-Palestine issues often boil over. A large percentage of the country’s population supports the Palestinian cause, and jumped to criticize Israel after it launched raids on Gaza in December 2008 and stormed a flotilla in May 2010 that was carrying activists and humanitarian aid to Gaza. Tensions over the issue are even more on edge now, as Malaysia gears up for its next general election, which must be called by early next year, giving politicians more incentive to argue their views in the press than usual.
“The issue is tied in with Malaysia being an Islamic country,” and the idea that “therefore it should support Palestine,” said James Chin, a professor at the Malaysian branch of Australia’s Monash University. He added the caveat that support for the Palestinians became a much larger issue in Malaysian politics after the era of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been accused by world leaders of holding anti-Semitic views, which he disputes. In a statement to the local press, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, a member of the ruling UMNO, disputed Mr. Anwar’s claim that Malaysia’s current policy on Israel is the same as his own. Although Malaysia officially supports a “two-state solution” in settling the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it has also sharply criticized actions taken by Israeli forces in the past, which the foreign minister indicated means Malaysia isn’t supporting “all steps” to protect Israeli security. “[Anwar’s comments] show a blanket support for anything Israel does,” said Khairy Jamaluddin, the chief of UMNO’s youth wing, who disputed any suggestion Malaysia’s ruling party was trying to politicize the issue ahead of an election. “The issue of Palestine is a top foreign policy priority for my party, it would be an issue during the election year or otherwise… timing doesn’t matter.” In 2010, Mr. Anwar – who in the past has been described as the face of liberal democracy in Malaysia – found himself on the other side of the argument after he lambasted UMNO for its relationship with a public relations firm called APCO. In Parliament, he said the firm was “controlled by Zionists” and working on behalf of the American government to influence Malaysian government policy – a charge denied by both the government and the public relations firm. At the time, American-Jewish groups such as B’nai B’rith accused the opposition leader of “anti-Jewish” and “anti-Israel” slanders, and called on American officials to suspend their ties with Mr. Anwar. Still, many analysts believe the latest kerfuffle is largely electioneering on the part of the ruling coalition, preoccupied with the looming possibility that the next election will be the hardest-fought yet. “They’re just using it as a weapon to bring (Mr. Anwar) down,” said Mr. Chin at Monash University. ~wall street journal~