As a Muslim, born in a Palestinian village that became part of Israel in 1948, Ali Yahya is a very unusual Israeli diplomat. In 1995, he was named Israel's ambassador to Finland, where he served until 1999. He then returned to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where his current status is that of a coordinator for special projects in the Department for Middle East and the Peace Process. He is evidently knowledgeable and a genial conversationalist.
No doubt it was qualities such as these that led to Yahya being deployed as the latest weapon in Israel's charm offensive in Southeast Asia. As related in previous issues of this magazine, the Israeli government has sought to reap political dividends from its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, completed in September 2005.
Recently Yahya visited predominantly non-Muslim Singapore and Thailand. His five-day visit to Singapore focused on meetings with local Muslims, including community leaders, journalists and students. The latter included 100 young people attending Aljuneid madrasah, with whom he spoke in Arabic. He urged the importance of dialogue as the means to resolving conflicts, including that between Israel and its neighbors.
While in Thailand on Jan. 23 and 24, Yahya took part in a discussion with academics at Bangkok's Thammasat University. He was interested in the state of relations between Thai Muslims and the rest of the population of the mainly Buddhist country. Among those he met were Dr. Chaiwat Satha-anand, director of the Peace Information Center and a member of the National Reconciliation Commission that is concerned with the issue of conflict in Thailand's predominantly Muslim far south. He also had a meeting with members of the Democrat Party, including some of its Muslim MPs.
As an Israeli official, Yahya could not visit Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, but he spoke to Indonesians through an interview published by the Jakarta Post on Jan. 26. In the absence of direct diplomatic ties, Israel is availing itself of media channels to court Indonesian public opinion and explore reactions among Indonesia's political elite, some of whom are sympathetic to the idea of friendlier relations with Israel.
The Jakarta Post interview drew a riposte from Ribhi Awad, Palestinian ambassador to Indonesia ("Palestine Embassy makes it clear," Feb. 2, 2006 Jakarta Post). Giving short shrift to Yahya's "charming pronouncements" against violence and in favor of dialogue, Awad hit out at the selectivity of Yahya's depiction of current conditions in Palestine, and, in particular, at his anti-Palestinian remarks.
Awad took issue with the Israeli diplomat for placing the blame for the outbreak of the second intifada and its ensuing violence solely on the Palestinians, pointing to its immediate cause as:
"Sharon's so-called excursion to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock compound with a large entourage of Israeli security troopers in spite of all Palestinian appeals and protests of what a move like that straight after not so successful peace negotiations could engender."
Awad challenged Yahya for overlooking the violence inflicted upon the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which had, he wrote, resulted in over 4,000 being killed, a third of whom were women and children.
In his original interview, Yahya depicted the Gaza settlers in language more accurately used to describe Palestinians who were forced from their homes and lands in 1948. He spoke of Jewish families being forced to move "from the place which they called their home," ignoring the fact that these were armed colonists whose presence was imposed upon the people of the Gaza Strip in defiance of their wishes and of international law. …