(Adds comment from the international and Israeli paralympic committees.)
(CNSNews.com) – Six months before Malaysia hosts the world para swimming championships, its 93-year-old prime minister says Israelis are not welcome – and if the organizing body doesn’t like it, it can hold the event somewhere else.
The International Paralympic Committee expressed its disappointment about Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s stance, but said in a statement it was working to “find a solution to this issue.”
The biennial world champs is also an important qualifier for the Paralympic Games, to be held after the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo next year.
According to the IPC around 600 athletes from 60 countries are expected to take part in the event in the city of Kuching – the ninth of its kind, and the first to be held in Asia – from July 29 to August 4.
Israel, which currently has ten paralympic swimmers, has competed and won medals for swimming in every Paralympic Games since the event was first held in 1960.
Muslim-majority Malaysia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, and its government is an outspoken supporter of the Palestinian cause.
The IPC announced in September 2017 that Malaysia would host this year’s world champs in Kuching. It’s not clear whether the question of a ban on Israelis came up at the time, but it has now.
Mahathir, a strident critic of Israel and the West who ruled for 22 years before retiring in 2003, returned to the premiership last May.
He told reporters in Putrajaya last week that there was “no place for Israeli athletes in Malaysia” and that the government would not relent.
“We maintain our stand on the prohibition,” the Bernama state news agency – in a report that has been posted on the website of the prime minister’s office – quoted him as saying.
“If they want to withdraw Malaysia’s right to host the championships, they can do so,” he added in reference to the IPC.
A group of 29 Malaysian non-governmental organizations in a statement praised the government’s position, saying that “boycotting and isolating Israel is the very least that can and should be done to express moral outrage.”
The statement provided by the IPC said the organization would “continue to pursue every single avenue [with Malaysian authorities] … to try and ensure that all of the world’s best swimmers can compete at this event as World Championships should be open to all eligible nations.”
The IPC’s governing board, meeting in London next week, would discuss the matter further, it said.
The IPC’s Diversity and Inclusion Policy takes a firm line of discrimination.
“The IPC fully recognizes that discrimination is unacceptable and consequently will not tolerate any form of discrimination either directly or indirectly on the grounds of race, gender, marital status, age, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, impairment, religion or belief, gender identity, color, or political persuasion,” it states.
A spokesperson for Israel’s National Paralympic Committee said Tuesday that it, together with the IPC, “hope to find a the right solution” before the championship begins.
Malaysia’s antipathy towards Israel was evident early last year when the government hosted a United Nations conference on urban issues and – because of a host country agreement it had signed with the U.N. – had no choice but to allow Israelis to take part.
When an opposition leader raised the issue in parliament, a government deputy minister assured lawmakers that the Israelis were the only delegation not to be met on arrival by Malaysian officials, and not to have been provided with a police security detail.
In 2017, when President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Mahathir, called the American president a “villain” and an “international bully.”
Addressing a protest rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, the then-opposition leader said all Islamic countries should respond to Trump’s move by cutting ties with Israel.
Mahathir’s hostility towards Israel, Jews, and U.S. foreign policies with which he disagrees goes back years.
Shortly before he ended his earlier stint as prime minister, Mahathir won a standing ovation from Organization of Islamic Cooperation heads of state after a speech in which he declared that Jews “rule this world by proxy” and urged Muslims to use their brains and brawn to fight the Jews.
Days later President George W. Bush challenged Mahathir over the remarks during an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum both were attending in Thailand. His national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, called them “hateful” and “outrageous.”
In response to the furor, Mahathir said the criticism merely proved his point about Jewish influence.
After leaving office Mahathir continued to stoke controversy. When Bush ran for a second term in 2004 Mahathir wrote an open letter to American Muslims urging them to vote for his Democratic rival, John Kerry, and accused Bush of being “the cause of the tragedies in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq.”
(Earlier that year, Kerry’s campaign had rejected Mahathir’s unsolicited endorsement, with foreign policy advisor Rand Beers calling him “an avowed anti-Semite whose views are totally deplorable.”)
Later Mahathir created an initiative called the “Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission” which purported to put Western leaders “on trial” for alleged war crimes in Iraq and elsewhere.