Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday denied rumors that his trip to Israel next week is for medical reasons.
Duterte, who will be the first leader of the Philippines to visit Israel since ties were established in 1957, has said the purpose of the trip is to check the conditions of Filipino guest workers in the country and expand bilateral ties.
“If they operate on me there, then that would be nice,” Duterte jokingly told reporters Monday, according to the Philippine News Agency.
Responding to claims by a pair of opposition lawmakers that he would undergo medical examinations while in Israel, Duterte said he was worried about how growing tensions in the region could affect guest workers.
“I’m there because of the 28,000 Filipinos. And it’s getting hotter there. And also in the Lebanese front, there is something a-brewing there. And in Jordan, we have 48,000 Filipinos. That’s why I am bringing (Environment Secretary Roy) Cimatu to prepare for that eventuality and just in case war breaks out,” Duterte was quoted saying by CNN Philippines.
Following his trip to Israel, Duterte will visit Jordan. The hardliner will reportedly not visit the Palestinian Authority.
A statement from the Philippines foreign department earlier this month said during his September 2-5 visit, Duterte and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will discuss how to develop ties on issues including security and counter-terrorism.
Israel has been a key weapons supplier to the Philippines, which is fighting Islamist insurgency as well as communist guerrillas.
An Israeli firm supplied the thermal imaging system for an armored military unit that killed the top leader of Islamic State group-linked terrorists who seized the southern city of Marawi last year, the unit has told AFP.
Duterte, 73, won elections in 2016 by a landslide after a campaign dominated by his pledge to rid society of drugs by killing tens of thousands of people.
Since Duterte took office, police say they have killed 4,354 drug suspects, with many others murdered by unknown killers. Rights groups allege the total dead in the campaign is more than 13,000.
In his remarks Monday, Duterte said he would bring a group of retiring police and military officers with him to Israel as “my gift to them for serving the country,” ABS-CBN News reported.
Duterte faced global condemnation in September 2016 when he compared his crackdown on drugs to Adolf Hitler’s genocidal drive in World War II.
“Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there are three million drug addicts (in the Philippines). I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he said.
Historians say at least six million Jews died in the Holocaust.
Duterte later apologized to the Jewish community over his remarks, which he said were aimed at critics who had likened him to the Nazi leader.
His government also pointed out the Philippines gave refuge to around 1,300 Jews fleeing the Holocaust.