HIS Excellency Dr Meir Shlomo’s credentials for representing his native Israel as Ambassador to Thailand are excellent. Not only
is he an accomplished diplomat, but his forebears were also among the members of the farflung Jewish diaspora who had already returned to their ancestral homeland before the state of Israel was re-established on May 14, 1948.
Dr Shlomo took up his post in Thailand on August 11, 2017, just a few months short of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in which the British government signalled support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The กeclaration was made during World War I in a letter dated November
2, 1917, from UK Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community. It was the first expression of support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland by significant political power and set in motion a chain of events that have played a vital role in shaping the world we live in.
“My parents were both born in Israel in 1929,” the ambassador said at the start of our interview at his office in the Israeli embassy compound. “My grandparents came from Aden, which used to be a British colony and was later called the Democratic Republic of South Yemen, although it was neither “democratic” nor a “republic”.
Anyway, my grandparents came to Jerusalem in 1927 when there was a big pogrom in Aden, which had a large Jewish community. Many Jews were killed, but most escaped. Since Aden was a British colony half of them went to the United Kingdom. The other half, including my grandparents, came to Jerusalem. I was born in Tel Aviv in 1954.”
Return to Thailand
Like all Israeli citizens, male and female, Ambassador Shlomo joined the Israeli Defense Forces when he turned 18. “After serving in the army for three years, I backpacked around Asia with my girlfriend who later became my wife. We visited India, Nepal and Burma before coming to Thailand. I spent two months here in 1980. I went to the North and South and spent time in Bangkok as well. It was a lot of fun, and I decided that I would come back someday.”
After returning to Israel, Dr Shlomo resumed his studies and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), in November 1981. Before coming to Thailand, he held diplomatic posts in El Salvador, Peru, Denmark, India and the United States. This is his first posting as ambassador, and he is also non-resident ambassador to Cambodia.
“I presented my credentials to His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun on November 28 and to the Cambodian King, His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni in Phnom Penh on November 22.
“I have been to Thailand a few times since my first trip in 1980. When I was posted in India in the mid-1990s, I came here for a one-week visit. In 2009 I was invited by the Thai MFA to conduct a workshop on public diplomacy. I came here with a colleague. We were both impressed at what a sparkling international city Bangkok had become.
I was quite stunned at all the progress since my last visit. The skyline is very amazing.”
he government to government relationship between Thailand and Israel is very good,” said Ambassador Shlomo. “Official diplomatic
relations between our countries were established on June 23, 1954. For over 60 years we have experienced continuous cooperation and knowledge sharing in many areas, including agriculture, water management, business startups, technological innovations, education, medicine and culture.
“We have an excellent, balanced trade worth US$1.2 billion both sides and we are hoping to push that upward. We export to Thailand mainly our know-how, as well as irrigation equipment, chemicals and high-tech products. We are buying from Thailand fully assembled cars with steering wheels on the left side, electric circuits and foods like canned fish.
“The main thing I would like to accomplish while here is helping to put in place a free trade agreement between Israel and Thailand. It’s a process that we started some time ago, and it’s gotten stuck a little bit. I am convinced it will be mutually beneficial to go forward and reach an agreement. We are currently negotiating an FTA with Vietnam. To stay competitive in the region, it’s in Thailand’s interest to do the same. Israeli businesses can fit very well in Thailand’s economic plan “Thailand 4.0”, which stresses high technology, including financial-tech and cyber-tech. Israel has a lot to offer in these areas. It’s an opportunity for both sides to take advantages of our strengths.
“The FTA is the main thrust of our embassy, but of course I am also dedicated to enhancing political, people-to-people and cultural relations between our two countries.
“Thailand is a great country for tourists from all over the world and a very attractive destination for Israelis. Around 200,000 of my countrymen, old and young, come here every year. This is actually about two percent of the population of Israel. So there are an awful lot of people-to-people relationships and connections being created.
Unfortunately, only a few thousand Thai tourists visit Israel annually. We want to attract many more.”
Israel has no problem attracting Thai workers.
“Currently there are about 25,000 Thais employed mostly in the agricultural sector, and there are long lines of their compatriots waiting to join them. A Thai worker can stay in Israel only five years, so there is a constant turnover. There are also about 120 Thais who received scholarships to study agriculture in Israel. They have a special study program that allows them to get work experience outside at the same time.
“By now everybody in Israel knows that Thais are excellent workers and we appreciate their contribution to our agricultural sector. Our government and the Thai embassy in Israel have formed a partnership to take care of the workers. We have made a lot of improvements to the system, and these have benefitted the workers. In former times private recruiting companies in Thailand would recruit Thai workers and send them to Israel. These private companies would charge the workers a lot of money. Every Thai worker was paying up to US$10,000 to work in Israel.
“Five years ago we changed that with a very interesting model of cooperation that is the first of its kind in the world. The Israeli government together with the Thai government and the UN-affiliated International Organization for Migration (IOM) cut out all the private companies. The IOM now recruits the workers and they pay only US$1,500. For that, they get training, medical insurance, information and much more.
“This does not include airfare of course. The whole recruitment procedure is very orderly and designed to run with minimum expenses for the workers. It’s a clean operation. The IOM does the recruiting in Bangkok and also in Northeast Thailand. IOM officials do the screening, interviews and physical check-ups and they give workers information.
“We are committed to protecting the rights of Thai workers in Israel. We have a hotline with Thai speakers who can assist workers who have problems receiving their salaries or with any other problem. The workers can also call the Thai embassy in Tel Aviv, which is run by a new and very efficient ambassador, Her Excellency Penprapa Vongkovit. I know that she always does her best. I think we have a perfect model in place to make sure that nobody is taking advantage of foreign workers and they are treated fairly while in Israel. We are very proud of it, and the Thai government and the IOM should be too. Unfortunately not too many people in Thailand know about it.”
“The main challenge in the future for Israel is to find a peaceful solution to the conflicts with our neighbours. This is definitely the number one challenge and we have been trying to do it since the State of Israel was established in 1948. We have had some successes. We have a peace agreement with Egypt and with Jordan, and we have cordial relations, which may not be official, with some of the moderate Arab countries.
“The second challenge, of course, is to ensure the continued prosperity of our country, so that all Israelis can lead fulfilling lives and provide for their families. The Israeli economy is doing pretty well. During the 2008 global economic crisis, we came out pretty good. We didn’t have
any meltdown or collapse. In the past decade, our per capita income
averaged about US$36,000 per year, which puts us in the top 20 countries in the world. Our goal is to increase it to US$40,000.
“More and more we see that strong commercial ties with Southeast Asia are important to economic growth. This is a huge emerging market that in the past we didn’t target very well because of the distances involved. But now we are focused on enhancing our relationship with Thailand and the region in all spheres. It used to be that Israeli companies would operate only in Europe and the US, but now there are many functioning very well in Asia.”
“For a long time, people said the next war in the Middle East would be over water because it is very scarce in the region. Actually, the Six-Day War was partly caused by a conflict we had with Syria over water. You can’t do agriculture without water and from the start agriculture has been our main source of employment, much like Thailand.
“We knew we had to solve the water problem somehow, and the way we’ve done it is through desalination projects. Today we have enough water because we’ve developed technology to take salt from seawater and transform it to drinking water and water for agriculture. You could say that rather than try to share the same pie we made the pie bigger. In other words, we no longer have to compete with our neighbours for the limited amount of water from rivers in the region. Instead, we have developed a new source of water, and now we are exporting to other countries.
“Under our peace treaty with Jordan, we supply the Jordanians with 50,000 cubic metres of water through a pipeline. This water helps Jordanian farmers. So, through Israeli technology and know-how, we have taken the possibility of war over water off the table. Many countries are facing water shortages, and we help some of them with desalination projects.
“We are also big on recycling water. When it comes to recycling drainage water Israel is number one in the world. We clean it to the degree that it becomes drinkable. It’s perfectly healthy to drink, but we don’t drink it because psychologically people are uncomfortable about it. We use it in agriculture, for example.”
The ambassador said Israelis tend to feel very comfortable in Thailand and Southeast Asia in general. “This region has little of the anti-Semitism you see elsewhere. Almost everyone I meet here has a good friendly attitude toward Israel and Israelis. Of course, people are aware of the troubles in our part of the world, but they are also aware of the innovations my country is developing in agriculture and technology.
“But around the world, many people take a negative view of Israel no matter what we do, and this has been made worse than ever before because of social media where numbers matter. In the last five or six years, a lot of Jews have migrated to Israel from Western Europe because they, unfortunately, don’t feel safe. There are also more Jews
migrating to Israel from Eastern Europe because of anti-Semitism.
“We have room for every Jew who wants to come to Israel. They don’t have to come, but those who do will be allowed to enter the country and obtain citizenship as always. Israel started out in 1948 with only 650,000 of us. Now the population is 8.4 million, and we can absorb
more than that. This was the original purpose; Israel was established to be a home for all Jews. Any time Jews find themselves in a situation where nobody wants them, as has happened so many times in the past, they know they have a homeland to go.”
New Middle East coalition
“The situation in the Middle East is quite interesting at this time. A lot of things have changed in the past few years. Major Arab Sunni countries have realised that Israel is not their enemy and we have many common interests. For example, they see Iran as a threat. This is what we have been saying for a long time. Now the Saudis, Egyptians and the Gulf countries all realise this. They are not going to break off diplomatic relations with Iran, but the fact of the matter is that new coalitions are forming in the Middle East.
“There is a coalition of the moderate countries that have the same interests as Israel, and on the other side are radical extremist countries like Iran, Libya, and Iraq. I don’t have to tell you what is going in Syria. It’s genocide being perpetrated by one side on their people. Libya is a basket case. Iraq is not exactly a model of stability either.
ISIS has been diminished, but unfortunately, ISIS is not going to go away completely. They will come back with another name. The problem is still going to be there.
“All these radical countries are on one side and the moderate Arab countries are on the other side, and they realise that Israel is not their enemy. It’s that simple. From our point of view, this is a major development in the Middle East.”
he ambassador said he wasn’t surprised at all the negative reaction following the formal US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “We can cope with it. We are hoping that this will be like other issues where most of the world said we were wrong, and we were proven right. Case in point: When Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Saddam Hussein in 1981 it was condemned by most of the countries in the world-however they all realised later that we did the right thing. Can you imagine the Gulf War against Saddam had he processed a nuclear weapon? Maybe some of these countries that are against it now will later come to recognise that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel for the simple reason that it is.
“In fact, Jerusalem has been the capital for our people for 3,000 years. Today the Knesset [the Israeli Parliament], the Supreme Court and other government buildings are there. It is the biggest city in Israel and it is the heart of the country. It’s little disturbing when other countries are trying to tell you what should be your capital. I think that justice will prevail and they will come to see what we see.
“Of course, the Palestinians are not happy about it. Every time we suggest a deal they say ‘no, no, we don’t want to take it because it is not enough for us. It is either our way or the highway’. Just take this example. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved a US plan to establish two countries: Israel and Palestine. The Palestinians rejected the plan saying ‘it is not enough for us’. And what happened? They are still without a Palestinian state. It always has been the policy of the Palestinians to ask for more, and if you don’t give them more, they will reject everything. It is everything or nothing for them. Actually, we didn’t like the partition plan either because we thought we were getting too little, but we were very pragmatic about it, and our leaders decided to accept it.
“The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. They think the time is on their side but actually, if you look back, time is working against them. Instead of celebrating 70 years of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel as they would be if they had accepted the UN resolution, they still have nothing.
“Likewise, Yasser Arafat didn’t accept the peace deal put together by President Clinton in 2000 and instead the Palestinians launched the second intifada. Mahmoud Abbas [President of the Palestinian National Authority] was offered a good accord in 2008, but he rejected it. They keep rejecting everything and come out with nothing. Is that good for the Palestinian people? I don’t think so. If they think that they will get everything they want one of these days, they are wrong. They will have to settle for some compromises, or they will get nothing.”
Ambassador Shlomo hasn’t had much free time to explore the country as yet, but he hopes to do so. “I am really happy to have been given the opportunity to come back to Thailand, and I am looking forward to the next four years. I am still learning about the country’s history and trying to pick up a little Thai when I have the time,” said the ambassador, who can speak Hebrew, English, Spanish, French and a little Danish.
“I was in Denmark for three years, but I failed to learn the language. It’s a tough language, as is Hebrew. I am finding Thai a bit difficult as well, and I am not going to pretend I will be speaking fluent Thai anytime soon. But at the least, I really want to be able to have a simple
conversation in Thai. I want to get to know the people here. At the end of the day, this is the most important thing a diplomat does.”
CV of H.E. Meir Shlomo PhD
• 2014: PhD (summa cum laude) University Paris 8.
• 1987: MA (cum laude) mass communications, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
• 1983: BA (cum laude) Political Science, Tel Aviv University. Professional Experience
• 2014: Head of the North American Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).
• 2010-2014: Ambassador and Consul General and Head of the Israeli Mission, Houston, Texas, USA.
• 2007-2010: Adviser on strategic affairs to the division of Public Diplomacy at the MFA.
• 2002-2006: Consul General and Head of Mission, Boston Massachusetts, USA.
• 1998-2002: Director of Public Diplomacy at the MFA.
• 1995-1998: Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Israel, India.
• 1992-1995: Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Israel, Denmark.
• 1989-1992: Head of Liaison Office for academic affairs at the MFA.
• 1987-1989: Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Israel, Peru.
• 1984-1987: Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Israel, El Salvador.