Jewish Political Studies Review 17:3-4 (Fall 2005)
Israel and Asia: Building Diplomatic Bridges
Freddy Eytan on
The Long Journey to Asia
by Moshe Yegar
Moshe Yegar is the most qualified Israeli diplomat to write about The
Long Journey to Asia. He joined the foreign service in May 1956 and
held various posts in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Throughout
his multifaceted career, he was at the center of diplomatic activity. His
vast experience provided him with a global vision of what Israel's
foreign policy should be.
A graduate of the Hebrew University, Dr. Yegar has also devoted
much time to research and writing. Among his most noted works are
The Muslims of Burma (1972); Neutral Policy - Theory versus Practice:
Swedish-Israeli Relations (1993); Czechoslovakia, Zionism, and Israel
(1997); and Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities
of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/
Myanmar (2002). Highly versatile, Yegar has also written seven
storybooks for children.
His latest book, The Long Journey to Asia, is the culmination of
his works so far and the most authoritative document ever written on
Israeli diplomacy in that continent. Yegar covers all the diplomatic
developments, clearly and reliably reconstructing their elements. He
does not omit any incidents, even initiatives that were doomed to
failure from the outset. With the help of documents and letters, he
details the viewpoints of the people involved. His aim is to draw all
the possible lessons.
Yegar's writing is informative and lucid, tinged with his own feelings
about the various incidents - from enthusiasm to disappointment
and even, sometimes, anger. At the same time, he upholds intellectual
honesty. The book is supplemented with erudite notes and a long list
of sources, reflecting the author's dedication to his task.
The China Controversy
Yegar includes the disagreements and public recriminations raised by
the fundamental question of whether Israel, in the 1950s, disregarded
Asia and missed the opportunity to establish diplomatic relations with
China. He emphasizes a contested mission by Member of Knesset
David Ha'Cohen, who favored diplomatic relations with China without
preconditions whereas Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett refused.
Sharett continued to vacillate concerning the reactions of the U.S.
State Department and the American Jewish community as well as
the possible influence of Chinese communism on the Israeli Arabs.
Especially noteworthy was the active opposition to relations with Asia
by Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon and Education Minister Zalman
Aranne - two senior members of the ruling Mapai Party who were
hostile to Sharett.
Indeed, to this day internal issues influence diplomatic and governmental
developments in Israel. As Henry Kissinger once put it, "Israel
does not have a foreign policy; its government is occupied only with
Yegar examines relevant governmental decisions and highlights
the role of the foreign minister in each case. He praises Sharett's
diplomatic resourcefulness, even when his plans were not implemented.
He emphasizes that as foreign minister, Golda Meir devoted less
attention to Asia than to Africa. Abba Eban was also, in Yegar's view,
a disappointment as he focused all his activity on the United States
Yegar points out that trade between Israel and Asian countries
began to develop only after the Sinai Campaign in 1956. Despite
obstruction by the Arab states, Jerusalem continued to expand its
representation in Asia. By the end of 1960, it had embassies in Burma
and Thailand, diplomatic officials in Japan and the Philippines, a
chargé d'affaires in Ceylon, nonresident ambassadors in Nepal, Cambodia,
and Laos, and a consulate in India. Israel's strongest base,
however, was in Burma, reflecting the special personal relations between
the respective prime ministers, David Ben-Gurion and U Nu.
In the second half of the book, Yegar explores Israeli diplomatic
activity in each Asian country. After a comprehensive review
of the forging of full diplomatic ties with India, he devotes an
especially absorbing chapter to the relations with China from the
first contacts in 1948 to the present. The breakthrough to full
relations with both India and China began with the collapse of the
Soviet bloc. That development, in conjunction with the first Gulf
War leading to the Madrid Conference, fostered a great improvement
in Israel's status in Asia. The process, however, is not yet
complete, as important Muslim nations such as Malaysia and
Indonesia still refuse diplomatic relations with Israel. Indeed, in
2003 then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made
anti-Semitic declarations that encouraged a wave of Islamic terror
on the continent.
The book's division into two parts, when in reality it is a single
unified work, is somewhat unfortunate. It would have been preferable
to spare readers having repeatedly to return to the introductory overview,
instead focusing in the body of the book on the various diplomatic
processes leading to relations with Asian countries.
The Long Journey to Asia is the best work ever written about
Israel's foreign policy on this continent and is required reading not
only for those interested in the intricacies of diplomacy. It can guide
researchers, students, diplomats, and politicians in avoiding failed
efforts and the repetition of past mistakes.
* * *
* This review was translated from the Hebrew by Shalom Bronstein.
The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect
those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The above book review appears in the Fall 2005 issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review, the first and only journal dedicated to the study of Jewish political institutions and behavior, Jewish political thought, and Jewish public affairs.
Published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (http://www.jcpa.org/), the JPSR appears twice a year in the form of two double issues, either of a general nature or thematic, with contributors including outstanding scholars from the United States, Israel, and abroad. The hard copy of the Spring 2005 issue will be available in the coming weeks."
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