Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte confirmed on Monday that he will visit Israel, citing it as a part of a very busy schedule that could prevent him from meeting US President Donald Trump in Washington.
“I am tied up. I cannot make any definite promise. I am supposed to go to Russia, I am supposed to go to Israel,” he told reporters when asked about Trump’s invitation, made in a telephone call on Saturday.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that no date had been set for a visit by Duterte. Jerusalem, which sells weapons to the Philippines, was reported last month to be planning the visit.
The Israeli and Philippines foreign ministries were working together to secure a date for the trip after Duterte, whose brutal anti-drug crackdown has earned him many critics, expressed interest in coming to the Jewish state, the Haaretz daily reported at the time.
“There are many controversial leaders in the world and many countries that criticize them. Duterte is not boycotted by the world, there are no sanctions against him and he has visited a number of countries since taking office,” an unnamed Israeli official told the paper, estimating that the trip would take place in the coming months.
On Monday, despite hinting that he could snub the US president, Duterte said relations with Washington were improving with Trump in office rather than Barack Obama, who criticized the Philippine president for his anti-drug war, which has claimed thousands of lives.
Rights groups have warned Duterte may be orchestrating a crime against humanity, with police and vigilantes committing mass murder. But Duterte insists his security forces are not breaking any laws.
Duterte last year branded Obama a “son of a whore” in response to the criticism. He also declared while in Beijing last year that the Philippines had “separated” from the US.
The US is the Philippines’ former colonial ruler and the nations are bound by a mutual defense treaty.
Duterte said Monday that his efforts to loosen the alliance were only a response to the drug war criticism.
“It was not a distancing [of relations] but it was rather a rift between me and the [US] State Department and Mr. Obama, who spoke openly against me,” he said.
“Things have changed, there is a new leadership. He wants to make friends, he says we are friends so why should we pick a fight?”
The White House said late Saturday that Trump had invited Duterte to Washington during a “friendly” call, in which the leaders discussed the “threat” of North Korea.
“It was a very friendly conversation, in which the two leaders discussed the concerns of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding regional security, including the threat posed by North Korea,” it said in a statement.
The leaders also “discussed the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world,” the statement said, without noting the grave accusations against Duterte.
A recent Reuters report pointed at extensive fabrication of evidence to justify some of the extrajudicial killings, and said almost 9,000 people had been killed in the crackdown.
Philippine police have reported killing 2,724 people as part of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, although authorities insist the shootings have been in self defense.
Many thousands of others have been killed by shadowy vigilantes, according to rights groups.
A Philippine lawyer last week filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court accusing Duterte of mass murder, alleging his war on drugs had led to about 8,000 deaths.
Duterte’s pledge to stop the country turning into a narco-state has proved wildly popular with millions of Filipinos looking for a quick solution to crime and corruption.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.