ASEAN-Israel Dialogue Gains Momentum Amidst Critical Geopolitical Dynamics

Israeli soldiers from the Home Front Command recover an Israeli flag as they search damaged cars for human remains and other evidence, following the deadly October 7 attack by Hamas gunmen, on a field near Netivot in southern Israel, November 1. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

As Laos gears up to take the helm of the ASEAN chairmanship in 2024, eyes turn to the potential impact on regional and global alliances.

The country will play a crucial role in steering the regional bloc’s agenda and priorities, and the ASEAN-Israel dialogue, long set to deepen economic and cultural exchanges, has now gained momentum.

“This year, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Israel and Laos. Our shared journey reflects the strength of our friendship and the great potential for future collaboration,” said Yaron Mayer, Ambassador of Israel to Vietnam and Laos. “We are thrilled to see Laos leading the ASEAN bloc next year, and we’re ready to provide any assistance needed.”

Israel, known for its technological innovation and startup ecosystem, has found common ground with ASEAN nations, recognizing the potential for mutually beneficial partnerships. The ASEAN-Israel dialogue aims to enhance economic, scientific, and cultural exchanges, creating a bridge between the Middle East and Southeast Asia. This commitment extends beyond diplomatic ties, with a particular focus on enhancing tourism, according to Mayer. 

In line with this, Laos is also preparing for Visit Laos Year 2024, a year-long celebration of its cultural richness and natural beauty to boost both tourism and the national economy.

The collaboration between Israel and Laos in tourism has been steadily growing. Two Israeli agencies have established offices in Laos in the past year, catering to the needs of both Israeli and international visitors. This not only underscores the commitment to strengthening bilateral relations but also signifies a proactive approach to promoting tourism, fostering cultural exchange, and nurturing mutual understanding between the two nations.

Israeli Ambassador Yaron Mayer and Lao President Thongloun Sisoulith shaking hands. (Photo supplied.)

“We are actively encouraging tourism through diverse programs,” Ambassador Mayer said. “Laos is a beautiful country with a unique charm and has become increasingly popular among Israeli travelers, especially young people. We’re optimistic about attracting more Israelis here.”

But concerns over the impact of the escalation of violence between Israel and Gaza in Southeast Asia emerge as a significant hindrance to potential future collaborations.

The Gaza conflict’s devastating impact, with a death toll of more than 18,000, almost 10,000 of whom are children, has sparked global protests, bringing the long-standing issue to the forefront of global politics.

Navigating Regional Challenges Amidst Israel-Hamas Conflict

The October-7 attack is southern Israel by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement and military organization that governs the Gaza Strip, has led not only to a new humanitarian crisis in the Middle East but also to economic and political repercussions in Southeast Asia. Among the casualties, hostages, or individuals trapped in the Gaza Strip since then are several Southeast Asians.

Currently, 83 Lao people are in Israel. They are mostly exchange students from the faculty of agriculture at the National University of Laos.

“There is no need for repatriation. Israel is open to everyone, and flights are ongoing. If somebody feels that it’s not ok to stay there and wants to return, they are welcome to do it.”

But the risk remains as long as the attacks continue. From the beginning of the recent wave of violence, Hamas killed 39 and abducted at least 32 Thai nationals. Vietnamese workers are also still in war zones, although an accurate count of Vietnamese people in Israel and Gaza remains unclear.

Injured Thai overseas workers evacuated from Israel arrive at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, in Samut Prakarn Province, Thailand, 12 October 2023. The first Thai nationals evacuated since the latest war between Israel and Hamas returned home Thursday. (Photo: AP)

“The primary concern is the presence of students and labor workers, predominantly from Thailand. While a few students from Vietnam have been relocated to ensure their safety, there’s a noticeable shortage of workers due to the current situation, leading to discussions and exploration of opportunities in various countries, including Laos,” Ambassador Mayer said.

Despite Indonesia and Malaysia lacking diplomatic ties with Israel, the ASEAN regional bloc remains cohesive. ASEAN nations, along with Persian Gulf leaders, condemned attacks on civilians during a summit in Saudi Arabia. Eight ASEAN states supported a UN resolution for an Israel-Hamas ceasefire, with the Philippines abstaining and Cambodia being absent.

Malaysia, known for supporting Hamas, now faces pressure from the US for not labeling the group a terrorist organization.

Security concerns in Southeast Asia include the threat of a resurgence of terror networks, radicalization, and fundraising for militant groups. Pro-Islamic State and pro-al-Qaeda groups have been weakened, but the violence in Gaza could serve as a catalyst for jihadist groups seeking a cause. There are also worries about Southeast Asian charities supporting Hamas and other militant groups in Indonesia, Malaysia, the southern Philippines, and Thailand.

“I believe it’s primarily relevant to the Muslim countries in the region,” Mayer said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have relations with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. When they make statements, it’s up to them. What we can do is communicate with the countries with which we do have relations. They demanded the unconditional return of hostages and condemned violence. I think the region has already found a good balance, but we will keep in touch with Laos as the next chairman.”

Israel, Palestine Through History

The roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict date back to the Balfour Declaration during World War I, where the UK – after taking control of the territory in 1917 – pledged to establish a national home for Jewish people in Palestine. Subsequent Jewish immigration led to tensions, resulting in the Palestinian revolt from 1936 to 1939.

In an attempt to tackle this issue, a UN’s resolution in 1947 proposed the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states and declared Jerusalem a separate territory.  But the move only led to further disputes, resulting in what the world knows as the “Nakba” in 1948, the mass displacement of Palestinians, and the Six-Day War in 1967.

The Oslo Accords in 1993 further aimed for peace, recognizing each side, but Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, considered illegal, hindered the two-state solution. The blockade of Gaza since 2007 and ongoing territorial disputes continue to fuel the conflict. 

The Middle East has long been a hotbed of geopolitical complexities, and one of the key players in this intricate chessboard is Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political party and militant group. Continuous attacks led by Hezbollah along the northern border with Lebanon have persisted since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war. The daily exchanges of gunfire between Israel and Hezbollah, along with affiliated Palestinian groups, are fueling concerns about a potential broader conflict, according to Ambassador Mayer, shedding light on the multifaceted dynamics surrounding Hezbollah’s activities and its ties to Iran, Syria, and Iraq. 

“In this region, there is a significant distinction to make: Hamas does not represent the Palestinian issue,” the ambassador said. “Palestinians have longstanding and positive historical relations with many countries here. The people have no relations with Hamas at any level. The clear stance here is to maintain relations with the Palestinian Authority for the Palestinian people.”