Palestine as political hobbyhorse in Malaysia
Premier Najib Razak's rally cry against Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is more about local politics than genuine Islamic outrage
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak addressed friend and foe alike at a recent mass demonstration in support of Palestine held in Putrajaya, the country’s administrative capital.
The rally followed weeks of protests across various major international cities in response to US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
More than ten thousand gathered at the pink-domed Putra Mosque for the Friday rally, which began with prayers and a sermon that lambasted Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and called on Muslims to support Palestinian self-determination and defend Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam.
Najib, who has long taken an activist stance on the Palestinian cause, urged all Malaysians to put aside their political differences to join the rally on humanitarian grounds.
He shared the stage with members of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an Islamist opposition party that supports the imposition of Islamic law, while leaders from Malay-dominant parties of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition were also in attendance.
Najib, who was warmly received at the White House in September amid an ongoing US Department of Justice money-laundering probe into a Malaysian state fund he created and oversaw, has been criticized for his professed closeness to the divisive American leader.
That’s prompted him to push back against his detractors by flexing his Islamic credentials, including on the Palestine issue.
“Yes, I was welcomed at the White House. Yes, Donald Trump is a good friend of mine, but in terms of principles, I will not forsake the sanctity of Islam,” he said, adding that it was compulsory for Muslims to be united in opposition to Zionism.
PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang was due to appear at the rally amid speculation Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) may cooperate with the Islamist party ahead of a general election widely expected to be held in the first half of 2018.
While Hadi’s image appeared on large banners promoting the event, he was instead represented by his son, Muhammad Khalil, for undisclosed reasons. Hadi appeared alongside Najib in a December 2016 rally to protest Myanmar’s treatment of its Muslim Rohingya minority.
Analysts view the two parties’ moves to call critical attention to the poor treatment of global Muslims, including the Palestinians, as a thinly veiled ploy to score political points at home, as both brandish their Islamic credentials to appeal to Malaysia’s Muslim majority.
Najib cast UMNO’S emerging ties to PAS as being “in the interest of Muslims” during a policy speech earlier this month at UMNO’s annual assembly, while acknowledging “differing political views” between the two parties.
Several PAS members with reformist views broke away in 2015 to form a new splinter party, Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah), which joined ranks with the PH opposition coalition chaired by Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister who crossed aisles to join former rivals alongside other UMNO defectors.
Observers believe UMNO would be reluctant to cede parliamentary seats to PAS, but would welcome multi-cornered contests that would see the Islamist party draw votes away from PH.
While some anticipate a UMNO-PAS alliance at the general election to check the Mahathir-led opposition, it remains to be seen how closely they will coordinate electoral strategies.
Earlier this month, UMNO and PAS organized a Palestinian solidarity protest outside the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur that saw over a thousand demonstrators take part, bringing traffic to a standstill.
Only a hundred or so protestors turned up for a PH-organized pro-Palestine rally on December 15, in a tepid show of popular support despite the attendance of top opposition leaders.
Mahathir had earlier called on Najib in a blog post to defy the Trump administration by taking “meaningful” action for the establishment of a Malaysian consulate accredited to the Government of Palestine in Jerusalem.
Muhyiddin Yassin, a former deputy prime minister sacked by Najib in 2015, said planned investments in the US should also be cancelled in response to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city.
Malaysia’s leader committed to purchasing US-made Boeing 737 jets and 787 Dreamliners worth more than US$10 billion and promised investments in American infrastructure of up to US$4 billion during his White House visit.
The premier himself ruled out any retributive actions, telling reporters that Malaysia “cannot reject American investors because of this decision by the Trump administration.”
Though Malaysia’s foreign trade figures omit all mention of Israel, official data published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics show the two countries maintain a discreet trade relationship, despite political antipathy and a lack of formal diplomatic recognition.
High-tech exports, chemicals, medical equipment and pharmaceuticals are among the goods sought from Israel by Malaysian importers, according to the Times of Israel.
Malaysia and Turkey are the only Muslim-majority countries officially listed as top destinations for Israeli exports; Israel maintained a greater than US$500 million trade surplus with Malaysia in 2016.
Secret trade, consistently disavowed by the Malaysian government, occurs largely through third countries such as Singapore, where Israel maintains a diplomatic presence.
Over the years, Najib has attempted to influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a string of personal interventions. He called for a “new dawn” in Muslim-Jewish relations during a 2015 address to the UN General Assembly which quoted Hillel, an ancient figure renowned within Judaism as a sage and scholar.
In his address, the premier proclaimed a desire to see Israel’s government live up to Judaism’s highest ethical principles. Israeli media acknowledged how Najib’s remarks were notable for their positive portrayal of Judaism and recognition of Israel as a “legitimate interlocutor.”
Though critical at times, such a conciliatory tone from a Malaysian leader would have been unthinkable during the 22-year tenure of Mahathir, who famously alleged that Jews “rule the world by proxy” at a 2003 summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), in referring to Israel’s alleged influence over the US political system.
Israel is still a taboo topic in Malaysia, something the premier learned first-hand when an image of him appearing cordial with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu circulated on social media, the result of a chance encounter at the UN headquarters in New York in 2015 which was captured by an official Israeli press office photographer.
The photograph and news that Najib had shaken hands with the Israeli leader prompted enough controversy for Malaysia’s foreign ministry to issue a statement clarifying that Malaysia “would consider beginning relations with Israel only when a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people is successfully concluded.”
At the time, PAS condemned the premier over the handshake, issuing a statement saying Najib had “betrayed the efforts of the Muslim world in pressuring and boycotting Israel, when he shook the Israeli PM’s hand,” a remark that demonstrates the high degree of elasticity inherent in Malaysian party politics.
Najib was the first non-Arab head of government to visit Gaza as an official guest of Hamas during a surprise trip in 2013, where he toured sites bombed by Israeli forces and visited a Malaysian-funded school. PAS, which then was party to Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition, derided the trip as “hypocritical” and domestically targeted in an election year.
Friday’s rally in Putrajaya followed a vote at the UN General Assembly which saw a non-binding resolution declaring US action on Jerusalem “null and void” overwhelmingly supported by member states, including Malaysia, despite warnings from the Trump administration that it would end foreign assistance to states who voted affirmatively.
Malaysia is a minor recipient of US foreign assistance, receiving just US$1.51 million in 2017 largely for “peace and security” related programs, with a further US$2.42 million pledged for 2018.
It remains to be seen whether that funding is curtailed, though State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said cuts were “not a foregone conclusion.”
Though firm on his stance that Jerusalem’s status should not be decided by a unilateral recognition, Najib’s expressions of Palestinian solidarity have ultimately been matched by his administration’s unwillingness to enforce punitive measures against Israel or downgrade relations with the US.