Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday told President Reuven Rivlin that his country would henceforth only buy weapons from Israel due to its lack of restrictions, as dozens of demonstrators gathered outside the president’s Jerusalem residence to protest the controversial visit.
According to a Hebrew-language statement, Duterte praised Israel for helping the Philippines win its war on terror and said the Jewish state had aided the country on intelligence matters on multiple occasions.
He said he instructed his military personnel to purchase weapons and military equipment exclusively from Israel. The US is “a good friend,” but if we buy there are limitations, also with Germany and China, added Duterte, without elaborating on the restrictions.
Though it is not officially listed on his schedule, Duterte’s trip to Israel was expected to focus on exploring possible arms deals. He has said in the past that he sees Israel as an alternative supplier of weapons after the US and other countries refused to sell him arms over human rights violations. His visit comes amid a violent crackdown on drug dealers back home that has been forcefully denounced by human rights groups.
Israel is among the world’s top arms dealers, with nearly 60 percent of its defense exports going to the Asia-Pacific region, according to Israeli Defense Ministry data. The Philippines emerged as a significant new customer in 2017, with sales of radar and anti-tank equipment worth $21 million.
Duterte, in his comments, was dismissive of the criticism, saying his country upholds “morals and principles of democracy.”
Dozens of protesters gathered outside Rivlin’s residence on Tuesday to demonstrate against the hosting of Duterte.
Israel has found itself in hot water previously for its arms sales, particularly in 2017 for supplying Myanmar with “advanced weapons” during the country’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority.
Duterte also took the opportunity to mention his Jewish daughter and that the Philippines in 1947 provided the tie-breaking vote at the United Nations to create Israel.
Rivlin, who has come under pressure not to meet with the Philippines strongman, took the opportunity to school Duterte, who has in the past compared himself favorably to Hitler in the context of his war on drugs, in which thousands have been killed since he took office two years ago.
“Hitler was the devil himself,” Rivlin told the Philippines’ leader.
Rivlin also noted the strong ties between the two countries, saying: “We are working with any country that wants to fight terrorism,” before adding that “we insist on the principles of democracy and equality.”
Both countries have similarly struggled to quell Islamist terrorism within their respective borders.
In his comments at the opening of the meeting, Rivlin also mentioned the role played by the Philippines in saving Jews during the Holocaust. The heavily Catholic state provided refuge for nearly 1,300 Jews during the Holocaust, even offering to grant more than 10,000 visas to Jews at the time.
The Philippines’ leader’s visit has been criticized in Israel, partly due to comments he made in 2016, when he said he would “be happy to slaughter” millions of drug users in his country and likened himself in that context to Hitler, who also slaughtered millions.
On Monday, Duterte called Adolf Hitler “insane” during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and pledged that his country would fight against other such leaders.
Duterte said in his Monday speech that it was “insanity, what happened here in Europe. I could not imagine a country obeying an insane leader, and I could not ever fathom the spectacle of a human being going on a killing spree, murdering old men, women, men and children.”
Of the Holocaust, Duterte said, “I hope that this will not happen again. I hope the world has learned the lesson. My country will make sure it does not happen again as much as we can.”
He signed the Holocaust memorial’s guestbook, writing: “Never again. May the world learn the lessons of this horrific and benighted period of human history. May the hearts of peoples around the world remain forever open, and may the minds of all men and women learn to work together towards providing a safe haven for all those who are being persecuted.”
Nevertheless, critics worry that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sending a bad signal by welcoming a leader whose first years in office have been called a “human rights calamity.” Facing condemnation for a violent, extrajudicial war on drugs that has claimed some 12,000 lives, overcrowded jails and seen the harassment and prosecution of critics, Duterte has threatened to take the Philippines out of the United Nations. In March, he removed the Philippines from the International Criminal Court.
Duterte is only the most recent authoritarian leader to meet with Netanyahu, following Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, among others.
Israeli human rights groups had urged Rivlin not to welcome Duterte, calling him a “mass murderer.” In a written appeal, Israeli lawyer Eitay Mack argued that Duterte “poses a threat not just to Philippine citizens but also the peace of the whole world.”
Mack sent his appeal to Rivlin’s office on behalf of at least 24 other human rights activists, arguing that welcoming Duterte is a tacit endorsement, enabling leaders like him across the globe.
“There is no doubt that when the international community stands idly as a leader calls for massacres, and in fact commits massacres, against specific population groups, it legitimizes other murderous leaders,” Mack wrote in his appeal.
Israel, beyond supplying arms, may perhaps be a market for Filipino goods as well.
Israel is also home to approximately 25,000 Filipinos, who have come to work legally in agriculture and domestic work before returning home.
There are also rumors in the Philippines that Duterte is traveling to Israel for treatment for health problems. Duterte denies such claims.
Duterte heads to Jordan on September 5, where he is expected to meet with King Abdullah II.
Raphael Ahren and AFP contributed to this report.