Malaysia and other Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia have long been steadfast in their support for the Palestinian cause and generally refuse entry for Israeli passport holders as part of a policy of diplomatic non-recognition of Israel.

In ordinary circumstances, Kuala Lumpur would be an unlikely place to find an Israeli historian. Ilan Pappé, however, is no ordinary Israeli historian.

The 65-year-old academic has published over 20 books on the history of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular and has been labelled a “traitor” by some in his country for his opposition to Zionism, Israel’s national ideology and the explicitly Jewish character of the Israeli state it denotes.

Like elsewhere in the Muslim world, support for Palestine is articulated by those in the highest positions of government in Malaysia and can often unify otherwise divided political forces.

Critics, however, regard such activism as religiosity-infused domestic posturing rather than a broader recognition of human rights.

At a summit of Islamic leaders and state representatives held in Kuala Lumpur last month, the 94-year-old Malaysian premier accused the world of closing “both eyes, and their mouths and their ears” to Israeli aggression against Palestinians and called for Tel Aviv to face justice in an international tribunal.

Analysts regarded the summit – attended by the leaders of Turkey, Iran and Qatar – as underscoring divisions within the Muslim world following criticism of the gathering by Saudi Arabia, the traditional gatekeeper of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Pappé left Israel in 2007 after losing his teaching position at the University of Haifa and has received death threats over his political activism and revisionist historical account of Israel’s creation in 1948.

The nature of the Israeli state under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he maintains, is one that consciously enforces “an apartheid model”.

He is describing the global divide over Palestine as pitting solidarity-committed activists and civil society groups against political elites aligned with Tel Aviv for strategic, commercial and ideological reasons.

Israel has worked to establish closer military and security ties with Southeast Asia in recent years, becoming a key arms supplier to the Philippines, Myanmar and others.

But for the region’s Muslim-majority countries, Israel’s adherence to the two-state solution set out in the 1993 Oslo Accords remains a general pre-condition for diplomatic engagement.

In 2019, Israel adopted a divisive law declaring the country a Jewish state in which Jews enjoy “an exclusive right to national self-determination”, stoking the ire of Arab lawmakers in the Knesset.

The parliament regards the legislation as institutionalizing discrimination toward Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up around 20% of the nation’s nine million population.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad salutes the royal guard of honor during the opening ceremony of the parliament in Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Nonetheless, in the wake of controversial decisions by the USA, Brazil and others to relocate their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Israeli academic praised Malaysia’s opening of an embassy for Palestinians in Jordan.

An important part of the present coalition against the Palestinians is their attempt to depoliticize the Palestine issue and turn it into an economic issue, and to say that Palestinians have no national rights, no political rights and so on.

Palestine is still a political issue. It’s an issue of human rights, of civil rights, of collective rights, of self-determination, of the right of return and not an economic problem of poverty or unemployment.

The dissident Israeli scholar also maintains that Tel Aviv has unreasonably leveled accusations of anti-Semitism against critics.

For example, Netanyahu last month accused the International Criminal Court (ICC) of anti-Semitism over its chief prosecutor’s plan to pursue a war crimes probe in the Palestinian Territories.

Israel has weaponized anti-Semitism in order to stifle any criticism and debate because its international legitimacy, its moral standing, has been dramatically eroded.

Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2020.

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