Shifting sands in Malta’s foreign policy

Support for Israel’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council could have dire consequences on Malta’s excellent relationship with the Arab world

In recent years, the Maltese government’s stance on the intransigent Israeli-Palestinian conflict has seen a gradual shift, from one of complete support for the Palestinian cause to a more balanced position.

However, political analysts who spoke to MaltaToday have expressed their surprise and disappointment at the current government’s reluctance to condemn Israel’s fierce attack on the Gaza Strip.

By yesterday morning, the Palestinian death toll rose to over 1,000, with a further 5,800 injured since the beginning of the attack on 8 July.

On the other hand, rockets fired from Gaza into Israel have killed two Israeli civilians and a Thai migrant worker, while 34 Israeli soldiers have died in the field operation.

Following the start of the offensive on Gaza, it took the Maltese government over two weeks to issue a statement on the attack, with the foreign minister expressing “deep concern at the ongoing violence and the mounting death toll that overwhelmingly includes innocent Palestinian civilians.”

However, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has failed to express himself on the matter, fuelling suspicion of a major shift in Malta’s traditional support for the Palestinian cause.

This controversial stand followed a MaltaToday report, on Malta’s perceived support for Israel’s bid to win a seat for the first time ever on the United Nations Security Council.

Foreign affairs minister George Vella, a long-time champion of the Palestinian cause, is thought to be opposed to any move to support Israel’s bid, however the report has not been denied by the government.

Despite Vella’s opposition, it seems as though Prime Minister Muscat and other members of the government are not reluctant to support that bid, especially after recent developments in Malta’s relationship with Israel, which culminated in Muscat’s visit to Israel late last year.

Backing Israel would not only be problematic because two other European countries are also contesting the 2018 Security Council election but given Israel’s continued defiance of UN resolutions over its illegal occupation of Palestinian land, support for Israel would be controversial to say the least.

Since 1972 the US has used its veto power at the UN Security Council 39 times to protect Israel from censure and despite strong condemnations from across the world, Israel to this day persists with its illegal occupation and apartheid policies.

If Malta does support Israel’s bid for a seat on the security council in 2018, ahead of other European candidates Germany and Belgium, this could have unfathomable consequences on Malta’s excellent relationship with the Arab world.

A senior diplomat told MaltaToday that such a move would be “a major shift” in Malta’s foreign policy, especially since Malta’s unequivocal support for the Palestinian cause since the early seventies.

Although the government has so far failed to pronounce itself, this sharp shift could be down to the economic deals signed by Muscat with Israel.

The government’s failure to deny the report does not necessarily mean that Malta would vote for Israel in four years’ time, however if this does happen it could undo efforts by consecutive administrations, including the present one, to strengthen ties with Arab countries, especially in North Africa and the Gulf.

Malta-Israel relations

File photo: Alfred Sant, Eddie Fenech Adami and Guido de Marco, wearing the keffiyah, later joined a Palestinian peace march
File photo: Alfred Sant, Eddie Fenech Adami and Guido de Marco, wearing the keffiyah, later joined a Palestinian peace march

While Malta’s warm ties with the Palestinians are well documented, relations with Israel were always tricky, given its notorious “with us or against us” rhetoric.

However, in recent years relations between the two countries have undergone a silent transformation. MaltaToday is informed that Muscat’s visit to Israel last year, was originally planned for early 2011, however former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi had postponed the visit following the outbreak of violence in Libya in February of the same year.

The gradual shift in Malta’s foreign policy over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in 2005, when then foreign minister Michael Frendo, decided to open an embassy in Tel Aviv and another in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Frendo was also the first Maltese foreign minister to visit Israel and during his visit in February 2005 he reaffirmed Malta’s commitment to the peace process in the Middle East.

“Malta was always consistent in its belief about a peace process which would lead to two states – Palestine and Israel – to live together,” Frendo had said in his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian ministers.

Frendo had also underlined Malta’s desire to further develop bilateral relations with Israel, especially in view of Malta’s membership of the EU.

Malta’s diplomatic presence in the land of the occupier and of the occupied was justified by the foreign office “to provide first hand reporting on the situation and developments on the ground.”

In Frendo’s words, Malta “needed to have these two representations because you cannot be a contributor to peace in the region without engaging with both parties to the conflict.”

Since 1975, the Maltese government has been the Rapporteur on the UN Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People – a role Israel does not appreciate.

Former President Guido de Marco was rudely frisked by Israeli soldiers on a visit 10 years ago in which he persisted in visiting then Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in defiance of Israel’s bullying tactics.

But it was de Marco, as foreign minister in 1994, who was asked by his then Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, to persuade the late Yasser Arafat to resume talks after the latter had suspended them in the wake of the Hebron massacre, when Israeli physician Baruch Goldstein killed 30 Muslims by showering them with bullets at a mosque.

Perhaps the greatest unsaid between Israel and Malta is the murder of Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shqaqi in October 1995 in Malta. With the Israeli overseas secret service Mossad blamed for the assassination in cold blood in Sliema, the Maltese government never publicly named anyone and Israel never commented on the case. De Marco had however said “we would not accept any settling of scores in our country.”

The opening of the embassies in 2009 was a historic event, especially since Israel had closed its embassy in Malta in 1982 following the botched attempt to kidnap the Israeli Charge d’Affaires by the Abu Nidal group, which was classified as a terrorist organisation by the US, Israel and the EU.

On 23 September 1982, four men attempted to kidnap Esther Milo as she was about to enter her car. However, Milo was only lightly injured and the attempt failed.

Break with tradition

In comments to MaltaToday, historian Henry Frendo said he was “perplexed” by the government’s position.

“While the government condemned the disproportionate force being used by the Israelis, at the same time it seems that it will be supporting Israel’s bid to sit on the UN Security Council,” he said.

Frendo noted that the “confused” position was very distant from the positions taken by consecutive governments, especially those led by Dom Mintoff and the PN administrations led by Eddie Fenech Adami and Guido de Marco, who famously championed the Palestinian cause.

Asked what caused the change, Frendo said, “you would need to ask foreign minister George Vella,” whom the historian described as one of the forerunners of the Mediterranean focus in Malta’s foreign policy.

Sociologist and former Green Party chairperson Michael Briguglio attributed the change in position to Muscat’s recent visit to Israel, when the Prime Minister sealed a number of agreements with the Jewish State, spanning from tourism to health and from energy to research and development. 

In his October visit, Muscat had highlighted the importance of strengthening cooperation between the two countries, however he failed to make any reference to the Palestinian issue in his meetings with his Israeli counterpart, Benyamin Netanyahu and a number of his ministers.

“The Prime Minister is free to visit Israel however it seems that there is a shift from the policies espoused by Dom Mintoff and Guido de Marco, who always championed the Palestinians’ right to resist the theft of their land,” Briguglio said.

He added that Malta was not alone in its reluctance to take a clear stand against the Israeli “aggression,” noting that the EU’s passiveness and failure to impose sanctions was “scandalous.”

“I’m concerned by Malta’s decision not to make its voice heard and influence the EU to take a clear stand. As a neutral country, Malta not only has a duty but it is obliged to take a stand in favour of peace and against the indiscriminate aggression on Gaza, where schools, hospitals and a UN shelter have been bombed by Israel,” Briguglio said, adding that he hoped that Muscat would change his stance as he has done on a number of other issues.