Philippines strongman Duterte touches down in Israel for 3-day visit

Controversial president, who once compared himself to Hitler and has vowed to kill millions of drug users, will lay wreath at Holocaust monument; seeks Israeli arms deals

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte with Communications Minister Ayoub Kara at Ben Gurion Airport. September 2, 2018 (Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office)

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial leader who has presided over the killings of several thousand alleged drug dealers and addicts since winning power two years ago, arrived in Israel on Sunday evening, with a large delegation, at the start of an official visit.

The three-day trip — the first ever by a Philippines president — is to focus on bolstering bilateral ties in a various of areas, including trade, defense, and the conditions for thousands of Filipino caretakers working in Israel.

Duterte, 73, was met at Ben Gurion Airport by Communication Minister Ayoub Kara of the governing Likud party.

He is scheduled to lunch with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, meet other top officials, and visit the country’s Holocaust memorial. He is also expected to sign a major oil deal and view an arms display.

Duterte’s forces are accused of killing thousands in anti-drug raids since he took office in 2016. He drew outrage that year when he compared his anti-drug campaign to the Holocaust and himself to Adolf Hitler, saying he would be “happy to slaughter” three million addicts as the Nazi leader slaughtered the Jews. He later apologized.

Israeli human rights activists plan to protest the visit and have encouraged President Reuven Rivlin not to host Duterte.

Manila currently acknowledges almost 5,000 deaths and 50,000 arrests in Duterte’s drug war; human rights groups put the figures far higher, and say most of those dead are the urban poor. The Reuters news agency has published a series of exposés that indicate Duterte’s police have summarily executed hundreds of alleged drug dealers — shooting them in the head and heart at close range.

For Duterte, the visit may be most significant for his drive to seek weapons deals outside of the US.

According to the Kan state broadcaster, Duterte is bringing with him a delegation of 400, including top army and police officials, some of whom are expected to visit Israeli army bases.

Duterte has been very open about his proclivity for Israeli arms, having said publicly that he prefers them over the weapons manufactured in other countries.

“On the matter of arms, I said, do not buy from anyone except from Israel,” he said in 2016.

The US and Canada have both had military hardware deals fall apart with the Philippines due to concerns over Duterte’s drug war. But so far, sales with Israel have gone smoothly.

The Philippines emerged as a significant new customer in 2017 for Israel, with sales of radar and anti-tank equipment worth $21 million.

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.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, right, jokes to photographers as he holds an Israeli-made Galil rifle which was presented to him by former Philippine National Police Chief Director General Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa at the turnover-of-command ceremony at the Camp Crame in Quezon city northeast of Manila, April 19, 2018. (Bullit Marquez/AP)

One of the key events of trip will be a visit to a memorial dedicated to his country’s efforts to save Jews persecuted by the Nazis.

On Wednesday, Duterte is set to lay a wreath at the “Open Doors” Monument in Rishon LeZion’s Holocaust Memorial Park. Contrary to some media reports, he will not inaugurate the monument, as it was unveiled back in 2009.

The monument commemorates the Philippine’s “open doors” policy in 1939. At the time, most countries opposed Jewish immigration, but then president Manuel L. Quezon (who held office from 1935-44) allowed the issuance of 10,000 visas to persecuted Jews. Due to the outbreak of World War II and the Japanese invasion, only some 1,300 Jews actually reached safety in Philippines.

Though the two countries have enjoyed strong ties since establishing diplomatic relations some 60 years ago, Duterte’s government has rebuffed rumors that it may seek to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, as the US did earlier this year.

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