Notwithstanding the daunting challenges posed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic, bilateral relations and cooperation between the Philippines and the State of Israel will continue to “deepen and widen” especially in areas such as defense and counterterrorism, technology, energy, and labor.
This was the assurance made by Israeli Ambassador to the Philippines Rafael Harpaz in an exclusive interview with the Manila Bulletin on Wednesday, coinciding with the 2nd anniversary of the momentous visit of President Duterte to the Holy Land – the first Philippine head of state to do so while in office.
“The other good news is that its been two years since that historic visit of President Duterte to Israel last September 2018 and since then, relations between Israel and the Philippines are growing faster and deeper in so many areas,” Harpaz said in his opening remarks.
As a testament to the booming relationship, the Israeli envoy cited the ongoing expansion of their embassy in the Philippines with the recent addition of a defense attaché in the post. By the middle of October 2020, he said an economic and trade attaché will also be assigned in Manila to help their embassy in promoting business between the two countries.
“As far as I know only the Embassy of Israel is going dramatic,” Harpaz said even as he noted that some governments are even shrinking their presence as an offshoot of the pandemic.
Also next month, the Embassy of Israel will inaugurate its first-ever honorary consulate in Davao City.
“For the first time, yes, we have challenges with COVID-19 in certain areas… It opens our opportunities and we need to (re) invent ourselves from scratch,” Harpaz stressed.
With Israel bracing for the second lockdown on Friday due to the spiraling number of COVID-19 cases, Harpaz assured that the estimated 30,000 Filipinos working there are receiving proper care and are given full medical services and supplies just like any other citizen of that country.
While he confirmed that “few” OFWs may have been infected with COVID-19, Harpaz said the Filipinos are given ample protection and do not need to be repatriated like what is happening in many countries since the pandemic began in February this year.
“I’d like to praise the OFWs in Israel. I know that you’re repatriating many of them and returning home from all over the world, in the Gulf countries, but not from Israel. We can take good care of them, they are paid well, there are no lay-offs, they get medical services like us when it comes to COVID and they are taking care of our beloved people, our parents, and grandparents,” the Israeli top diplomat said.
Even with the pandemic, talks are ongoing between the two governments regarding the hiring of 1,000 more Filipino caregivers to fill up the requirement of their geriatric institutions.
“Actually, we need more Filipinos. Israel needs more Filipinos and we are discussing it with your government. In Israel, Filipinos can work only in the residence of elderly people and people with disabilities. They cannot work as ‘yayas’ (nannies) in Israel,” he said.
During the interview, Harpaz expressed the willingness to further expand the defense and counterterrorism cooperation with the Philippines which is waging its own battle against terrorists, especially in Southern Mindanao.
“Terrorism is not just an Israeli problem, not just a Filipino problem, not just a European problem, it’s a global problem. We saw it in the siege of Marawi. The challenge you were faced was enormous and I’m happy that Israel was one of the countries that helped in that terrible challenge. There is no justification in terrorism,” he said.
While he suggests that Israel’s advantage is in the area of smart technology, Herpaz said the Philippines should first look at what it needs most particularly at this time when war is being waged in the cyberspace platform.
“Mainly it’s the technologies and smart things of Israel. We can provide these. It depends on the needs and the capabilities of what the Philippines need. You can see all the Israeli technologies all over the country. It’s not just equipment, it’s also, for example, cyber. The next war will start with cyber. This is the reality not of the future but the present,” he said.