Philippines' Duterte eyes arms deals on Israel trip

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is set to arrive Sunday for a visit to Israel and Jordan, pursuing a pivot away from his nation's long-time reliance on American military hardware and backing.

The four-day stay in Israel is the first by a Philippine leader in more than 60 years of diplomatic ties between the two nations, even though their links go back to Manila sheltering Jews during the Holocaust.

Duterte's visit has generated a lot of attention, powered both by his penchant for foul-mouthed statements -- including likening himself to Hitler -- and his internationally condemned drug crackdown that has killed thousands.

Duterte, accompanied by an entourage including soldiers and police, will sit down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hold an event with some of the thousands of Filipino migrant workers in Israel.

"We assign great importance to this visit, which symbolises the strong, warm ties between our two peoples," Israel's foreign ministry said in a statement.

Duterte has pivoted the Philippines away from its former colonial master the United States and toward warmer diplomatic and business ties with China and Russia.

The US and Canada have both had military hardware deals fall apart with the Philippines due to concerns over Duterte's drug war. But so far sales with Israel have gone smoothly.

"(The visit) is for President Duterte to look for an alternative market for... weapons for our armed forces as well as for the police," Henelito Sevilla, an international relations expert at University of the Philippines, told AFP.

Israel is among the world's top arms dealers, with nearly 60 percent of its defence exports going to the Asia Pacific region, according to Israeli defence ministry data.

- 'No Jerusalem embassy' -

The Philippines emerged as a significant new customer in 2017 for Israel, with sales of radar and anti-tank equipment worth $21 million.

There could be far bigger deals on the way as Manila plans a multi-billion dollar overhaul of its armed forces. Duterte has been dismissive of American sales overtures, saying he does not need US fighter jets or submarines.

Manila says the trip is expected to yield signed agreements on defence as well as labour, which is one of the Philippines' top exports.

Some 10 million Filipinos work abroad and send home money that is a lifeline to the economy. Manila is keen to ink agreements that protect conditions and pay for the workers, who are seen as national heroes at home.

Though the Philippines has a special bond with Israel for giving refuge to some 1,300 Jews fleeing the Holocaust, Duterte drew global condemnation for comparing himself to Hitler in 2016.

"Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there are three million drug addicts (in the Philippines). I'd be happy to slaughter them," he said. Most mainstream historians say six million Jews died in the Holocaust.

Duterte later apologised to the Jewish community over his remarks, which he said were aimed at critics who had likened him to the Nazi leader.

Just over a year later the Philippines abstained from a UN vote rebuking the United States for moving its embassy to Jerusalem. Palestinians see the eastern part of the disputed city as the capital of their future state.

The Philippines was reportedly among a handful of nations considering following the Americans' move, but Manila has issued repeated denials.

"This is actually not a topic of discussion," Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Ernesto Abella told journalists at a pre-visit briefing.

Duterte heads to Jordan on September 5, where he is expected to meet with King Abdullah II.