Thai-Israeli relations need recalibrating
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Thai-Israeli relations need recalibrating

This year, Thailand and Israel celebrate 70 years of diplomatic ties. Obviously, this comes during a period of great strain for Israel and the broader Middle East. Amidst it all, Thailand must recalibrate one of its most important foreign policies in the Middle East; otherwise, there will be nothing to celebrate.

The military action between Iran and Israel in recent weeks up has further complicated the regional strategic landscape, leaving Thailand to find how it should respond to such developments.

Despite the Thai government repatriating some workers from Israel following the Hamas attack on Oct 7, at least 28,000 Thais remain working in Israel. During the first three months of the Israel-Hamas conflict, nearly 9,000 workers were brought home.

But within weeks, some had returned to Israel on their own initiative despite the Thai government temporarily stopping Thais from working there, fearing for their safety since the conflict began. At least 4,000 workers have returned to their jobs through a third country. Meanwhile, 300 Thais reside in Iran and are not currently in any physical danger.

The death of 38 Thai workers during the Hamas attack on Oct 7 and the kidnapping of more than 50 by the terror group dominated the news headlines for months and left the newly formed Pheu Thai government caught off guard.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Labour, and other related ministries scrambled to find quick and appropriate responses to the kidnapping.

For the first time in Thai diplomacy, Thai workers abroad had been subject to hostile capture in a situation of political brinkmanship to which their country had no connection.

More than six months have now elapsed, and the hostage crisis continues, with eight Thai hostages still remaining unaccounted for. Last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the number and reiterated that their fates were unknown.

According to Israeli media, it is believed that in total, 129 hostages taken on Oct 7 remain held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, a territory under siege by the Israeli military.

Meanwhile, amidst the escalating conflict, the plight of those still held is earning less international media attention.

As far as Thai foreign policy is concerned, Thai-Israeli relations have been difficult to navigate as the country has to balance its ties with the Muslim world, particularly Iran, which is considered a traditional friend.

Truth be told, managing ties with the great powers' rivalries is less daunting than Thai-Israeli relations because it does not immediately impact the lives of Thai nationals, as seen over the past six months with the fate of Thai workers.

Balancing and hedging are familiar strategies for Thai foreign policy decision-makers, but they do not apply here within the Middle East context, which is akin to Russian roulette.

The Thai authorities and politicians credited the release of two batches of Thai hostages to their good ties with Muslim friends, including Iran.

For Thai diplomacy, Iran has never been considered a hostile country. Most importantly, ties with Iran run deep and can be traced back to the Ayutthaya period of the 17th century.

Tehran's pledge not to support any separatist movement in Thailand's deep south has won both goodwill and further strengthened ties, even as the West imposed tough sanctions on Iran.

The worsening of the conflict has resulted in the loss of employment opportunities for many Thais in Israel, which affects the lives of workers' families and communities in Thailand.

But there are also the many Thais who remain in Israel or who have returned to it for work, ignoring rocket attacks from Hamas and Iran and fears of a broader conflict.

Traditionally, Thailand has maintained a cordial relationship with Israel because Tel Aviv is a close friend of the US, and the country has high-tech know-how in security and agriculture.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Bangkok was considered a semi-war zone between Israeli special forces and Middle Eastern militant groups, involving hostage crises and bombing as well as assassination attempts.

Thai-Israeli ties were then heavily centred on anti-terrorism cooperation and intelligence exchanges due to existential terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in Thailand.

After the breakdown of Thailand's relations with Saudi Arabia in 1989 due to jewellery thefts and the killing of a Saudi businessman with a close tie with the Saudi royal family, the first casualty was Thai labourers. At the time, there were at least well over 100,000 workers in Saudi Arabia.

A few years later, Thai workers found new opportunities and gradually moved to work in the kibbutzim and other agricultural communities throughout Israel.

The communities in Israel are fond of hard-working but easy-going Thai workers.

After the two nations' governments agreed on labour agreements in 2012, the numbers increased and gradually replaced local Palestinians in terms of workforce.

Retired Thai diplomats with experience in the Middle East can recall one of the earlier days' complaints by the kibbutzim over the Thai workers' habit of trapping rabbits found in the vegetable fields and barbecuing them after work.

So far, concerning the Iran-Israel conflict, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called for mutual restraint to avoid any possible escalation of a broader conflict.

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddra-Nukara reiterated that the recent Israel-Iran tit-for-tat has not impacted the lives of Thais living in those two countries.

Given the current trajectory of geopolitics, the Thai government must ensure that the Thai workers in Israel will not be weaponised by the warring parties in the Middle East. A distinction must also be made between Hamas and the Palestinians in general.

With a huge number of Thais present there, any Thai action or policy regarding Israel considered harmful to Muslim countries could adversely affect those workers. The hostage crisis is a case in point.

Thailand can voluntarily impose quotas on Thai workers in Israel despite the growing demand for Thai labour there. The government needs to diversify the Thai labour market overseas and, at the same time, equip workers with new skills that could help them find compatible jobs elsewhere.

Recalibrating Thai-Israeli relations will involve Thailand voting at the UN regarding the current situation in the Hamas-Israel conflict. The prevailing perception of Thailand voting in favour of either side must be avoided, as it has fully supported the two-state solution and the Palestinians' right to self-determination.

Finally, Bangkok must also factor in Saudi Arabia, which has fully normalised ties with Thailand since January 2022 after three decades of frozen ties. Currently, the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement is on hold due to the war in Gaza. The status of their relations will also contribute to the broader outreach of Thai diplomacy towards the Middle East as a whole.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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