Letter from Israel

Israel and Pacific republics, united by an island mentality

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By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 1, 2010

As Israeli diplomacy goes, it was a smooth affair, unblemished by any of the policy disputes or disagreements that often follow diplomats or officials here. The visiting heads of state were eager to tour the country and soak up information in briefings by Israeli officials without breaking stride for the typical trip to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah or, as some do, a request to go to the Gaza Strip.

But then relations between Israel and the Federated States of Micronesia and the Pacific island nation Nauru have developed a special logic -- an alliance that has given Israel a couple of dependable votes in the United Nations and given the two small nations a source of technical aid on agriculture, health and other issues.

"The concept is that we reach out to every nation, whether it is small or big, remote or close," said Michael Ronen, Israel's ambassador to several Pacific island countries. The countries are among the smallest in the world -- Micronesia has about 108,000 people and Nauru about 15,000 -- but their votes count the same in an organization that routinely considers resolutions and issues related to the Arab-Israeli dispute.

In the United Nations "very few countries vote for Israel," Ronen said. "Some very big like the U.S. and some very small."

At the end of a five-day trip here, sponsored jointly by the American Jewish Committee and Israel's Foreign Ministry, diplomats from Micronesia and Nauru said their support for Israel was equal parts political and religious -- and in each case unwavering.

As predominantly Christian nations, Micronesia and Nauru sympathize with the idea of Jewish return, members of the delegation said, and as members of the United Nations they have sometimes -- along with the U.S. -- been among the few votes Israel could garner.

"Israel is a minority in the Middle East and struggling to survive," said Micronesian President Emanuel Mori. "We are also out there. We have no enemies, only natural ones. Typhoons come, and we survive. Being surrounded by not-friendly neighbors, we kind of pity them."

Sitting at a seafood restaurant as stormy waves crashed onto the coastline, a familiar scene for the group, Mori said that Israel's early decision to support Micronesia's membership in the U.N. two decades ago helped cement the relationship.

Supporting Israel "is morally correct," said Nauruan Foreign Minister Kieren Keke. Being so distant from the Middle East, the country's citizens "are not involved in the security conflict, but we do take our role in the U.N. seriously. We do feel that Israel does not get a fair say in world political opinion."

Israeli diplomats are nothing if not battle-hardened, having faced pointed criticism for the country's policies toward the Palestinians and its conduct of last year's war in the Gaza Strip. Under the sometimes combative foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, the country has taken a sort of zero-tolerance approach, feuding with Turkey and Sweden over television shows and newspaper articles regarded as anti-Semitic and challenging European officials considered too open to talks with militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Even as the Pacific delegation toured the country, the Foreign Ministry was telling Belgium's international development minister, Charles Michel, that he would not be allowed to visit Gaza because it would help "legitimize" Hamas. Michel said he had hoped to inspect projects his country was funding and regarded the denial of access as "not normal."

For Micronesia and Nauru, however, it has been all "soft power" -- something also on display in recent days through the Israel Defense Forces' quick dispatch of a field hospital team to Haiti.

Along with visits to religious sites, which Mori said he found particularly profound, the delegation was given briefings on renewable energy, water management policies and other issues that the Pacific nations consider critical, given their concerns about global climate change and rising sea levels.

Israel has sent experts to consult about the area's citrus crops and irrigation techniques, sent medical technicians to provide radiology training, and offered scholarships to Israeli colleges.

There is no quid pro quo, of course, but also no surprise that in the annual round of U.N. resolutions criticizing Israel, Micronesia and Nauru are regular members of what Israeli diplomats like to call their "moral minority."


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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