Malaysia’s PM Mahathir Mohamad compares Israel to ‘crook’ Najib Razak
- The premier also had a phone conversation with Palestinian chief of Hamas
- The move is likely to anger Israel further
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Friday reinforced his country’s already strident anti-Israel position by comparing the Middle Eastern country to his “crook” predecessor Najib Razak, who is facing dozens of criminal charges over the 1MDB financial scandal.
His comments came a day after he held talks over the phone with the leader of Palestinian Islamist group Hamas – another move that is likely to incense Israel.
Malaysia and Israel do not have formal diplomatic ties and are locked in a war of words following the Mahathir government’s decision to ban Israeli para-athletes from an upcoming swimming meet.
Mahathir’s government says that it took this “humanitarian” decision in support of the Palestinian cause, which has a huge resonance for many in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Israel retorted by describing the decision as emblematic of Mahathir’s “rabid anti-Semitism”.
It has also petitioned the International Paralympic Committee to move the event to a new location.
Unperturbed, the 93-year-old leader returned to the issue as he joined the campaign trail for a closely watched by-election to be held on Saturday.
The Israel ban was necessary despite the international criticism Malaysia has been garnering because of it, he told thousands of voters from Cameron Highlands on Friday morning.
“What is the reason we don’t allow Israelis to come here? We say they are crooks, and we just got rid of one crook,” he was quoted as saying by the Malaysiakini portal.
Najib, in power from 2009 until his defeat at the hands of his one-time mentor Mahathir in elections last May, has vigorously campaigned in support of his coalition in the by-election.
“American President Donald Trump has previously said Muslims from five countries cannot enter the [United States]. If Trump can do so, why can’t I?,” said Mahathir in the last-ditch campaign speech.
His comments drew cheers from the thousands-strong crowd, Malaysiakini reported.
Meanwhile, in his phone call on Thursday with Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, Mahathir reportedly said he viewed Israel as a “criminal state which Malaysia does not welcome”.
Mahathir also stressed that “bilateral relations between the two sides should continue to grow stronger and that Malaysia will continue to back the Palestinian struggle until Palestine achieves its freedom”, according to an account of the exchange released by the Kuala Lumpur-based Palestinian Cultural Organisation Malaysia.
Haniyeh’s Hamas rules Gaza, and is designated a “terrorist organisation” by Israel, the United States and several of their strongest allies.
Apart from Mahathir, his key officials are also reinforcing the country’s renewed hardline position on Israel.
In an interview with This Week in Asia on Thursday, Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, described occupied Palestine as an “open air prison” and compared his country’s ban to apartheid South Africa’s ban from the Olympics from 1964 to 1988.
Mahathir for years has brushed off accusations that he is an anti-Semite, insisting instead that he is simply an ardent defender of Palestine.
He shaped Malaysia’s current hardline policy against Israel – and in support of Palestine – during his first stint in power, from 1981 through 2003.
That policy has come back to the fore since his return to power last year following his defeat of Najib.
His hardline position has not come without a concerted pushback from Israel.
Writing on Twitter, senior Israeli diplomat David Roet said Malaysia’s “excuse” for banning his country’s athletes was “ludicrous at best”.
He said he had made a visit to Malaysia last year, which was the “first visit by an Israeli diplomat to Malaysia in decades”. “In all my meetings in Malaysia, I was most impressed by the fast development of Kuala Lumpur, as well as by the prevailing desire and hope for peace in the Middle East and a sincere wish for improved Malaysian-Israeli ties,” wrote the diplomat, who heads the Israel foreign ministry’s bureau for North American affairs.
“Positive relations with Israel is mutually beneficial,” said Roet.
“This could be true [for] future Israel-Malaysian ties as well. As for peace in our area, boycotting Israel does the Palestinians no favours and distances Malaysia from having any positive influence.”