Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Doorstop Interview in Israel on 20 March 2024

20 March 2024

Minister: I have been in Doha, I have been in Amman, went to Aqaba, went to Ramallah (and) now we are here. I think I am about halfway through (this visit). First, the point is, we need to engage all parties and the positions of the different parties here in the Middle East. All of them are different. Some may be subtle, some may be profound differences as clearly the position of Israel is different. But it is important for us in Singapore to engage across the entire spectrum. Why? Because Singapore does have interests in the Middle East. There are economic interests, there are questions of technology, and of course, conflict anywhere, insofar as it represents a threat to global stability, economic threat, inflation, interdiction of sea lanes of communication, all these things have an impact on Singapore. We have to engage, we have to understand, not just what is going on, but why these things are happening, what are the thoughts of the leaders, and at the same time, to be able to clearly and unambiguously state our views. As I said, our views are not identical. Even the views of all the leaders I have met amongst themselves are not identical.

Today, we have been in Israel, and there is a clear divergence of views. First, let me deal with where we agreed. What all of us, Singapore, and the Middle Eastern leaders whom I have met so far, in Doha, in Amman, have agreed that what happened on 7 October was a clear, flagrant, heinous act of terror. No ifs, buts, no excuses. That was an act of terror. Once you have innocent civilians being victimised, there is no other way but to call it out.

The next point is that there is a right of self-defence. As I said before, in Parliament, Singapore would have to assert a right of self-defence if something like this ever happened to us. But where we have a difference with Israel, particularly, and that is why the discussions today have been, I would say, candid, frank, sometimes even brutal, if need be – where we have a difference is, we believe that the Israeli military response has now gone too far. I have communicated that both to the Prime Minister, to the Foreign Minister, and to the other Israelis whom we have met.

But one sense, which I have picked up, and I think all of you who have spent some time and have chatted to other Israelis here is that the trauma of October 7, has been very profound on Israeli society, their sense of security, their sense of safety, their confidence, even with the arrangements that have been made by both the intelligence agencies, the military, the defence agencies. There has been a profound shock to their psyche and their emotion. This is a society in a very profound sense of both sadness, shock, and anger. There are hostages who are still being held.

I should add that you have noticed that I have taken pains at every call to also repeat that the hostages should be released immediately and unconditionally. It is not a matter of whether there are negotiations and a deal, or no deal. This society has been traumatised. Frankly, there are some messages that they are not ready to listen to, and they will not accept. Nevertheless, because our relationship with Israel has been long and close enough, I told the Prime Minister, we have to be honest. We need to tell our Israeli friends when we have a divergence. To be fair, they hear us out. But it will not change their plans. I do not know whether the negotiations in Doha are going to bear fruit. I still hope that there will be an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. I hope the hostages will be released. But I do not know how close or when that will occur. But my sense of it now, is that I do not think this conflict is over yet.

You may get temporary interludes, but I think we have to be prepared that this may go on. I have tried to make the argument that there are two inter-related concepts here - security and peace. I think the top objective of any government facing a crisis is security. You could make the argument, however, that security is essential but not sufficient, because without peace, the threats to security are going to come back over and over again. But again, I think that conversation on getting the balance right between security and peace, it is not the right time for them to really reach a conclusion on this. Again, if you speak to more people down here, you need to deal with fear on one hand and also hope for the future, on the other hand. My concern is that after what has happened to both the Israelis and the Palestinians right now is fear and anger that prevails, and not an immediate sense of hope for the future.

Nevertheless, for Singapore, I think what we need to understand is that the world is a messy, complex, difficult, and sometimes terrible place, and terrible things happen. We need to continue to engage all parties. We need to continue to be credible, constructive, helpful. I think our humanitarian assistance has been noted and welcomed by all parties, including the Israelis, and we will focus on doing more to help where we can. But do not have unrealistic expectations, that peace will somehow quit quickly descend on this very troubled land.

Kok Yufeng (ST): What is Singapore’s stance on the possible Rafah operation?

Minister: Yes, I have already expressed that in Parliament. We are deeply concerned that this offensive, or planned offensive, into Rafah will have a significant impact on the people who are currently clustered in that in that area. We have expressed that concern.

ST: What was the response from the Israeli Prime Minister?

Minister: I cannot give you the details of his response. But as I said, what we are hoping for is at least an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, deliver supplies, help people overcome that in the current and immediate and urgent needs. And then deal with the situation that unfolds. As I said, I am pessimistic. But you know, I hope I am wrong.

Muhammad Fakhruradzi Ismail (BH): Minister, how do you intend to manage the potential backlash?

Minister: It is not about a backlash. Singaporeans need to understand the importance of engaging across the board. I will have to explain repeatedly that Singapore cannot afford to duck and seek cover. We need to face the world as it is. We need to be able to convey our position accurately, not in a provocative way, but clearly and unambiguously. That is why I am here. That is why I will continue with the rest of the visit to the other capitals in the Middle East. I think generally, Singaporeans understand why we need to engage. There is no need to make any apology for that. We will continue to engage and as the situation unfolds, we have to. From a diplomatic point of view, there is always a need, even in this day of Zoom and emails, there is a need to have face-to-face conversations, to shake hands and get a sense of what your counterpart on the other side really cares about or is anxious about or hoping for. So we regularly engage in peacetime. I think in a crisis, and in a war situation like this is, it is even more important to engage. I would make the argument that it is more important, not less. We may not like what is happening, we may disagree with the decisions they are making but we must engage.

ST: PM Netanyahu has said he will not bow down to international pressure. If this actually happens, does it affect (our) ties?

Minister: No, we will have to see what happens. In the end, he is the man who has to make the decisions for Israel. We are not the leaders of Israel. He is accountable to his people. And he will also be accountable for the consequences. We must have a realistic appreciation for what we can do. We have stated our position, we have done what we can on humanitarian assistance, we stand ready to do more. We hope for the best, but we also have to be prepared that this is yet another recurrent bout of violence in a very troubled part of the world.

Sherlyn Seah (CNA): Minister, you talked about engaging the different parties in the Middle East. In the days ahead, can you share a sense of what you are expecting about this? And how would it be reached with the conflict?

Minister: I do not prejudge what they will tell me. It helps that I have been around for a long time. I have met directly and engage most of the leaders. They said this is a chance for us to catch up directly and to deal with the immediate consequences of this conflict as well as to discuss what arrangements would be most helpful the day after, or the day after the day after. But again, I want to make this point that Singapore has got good relations throughout the entire Middle East and we should not take that for granted. You wonder why a tiny city state far away in Southeast Asia is relevant down here. They do care about what we think. They do want to engage us. They do want to have good relations with us. And we should do so, but without shying away from expressing our own views and being true to our own principles. I think so long as we can continue to conduct foreign policy on this basis with the support of all Singaporeans, we are on the right track.


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