Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu set to make historic visit to Singapore

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to visit Singapore this weekend, marking an Israeli head of state's first official visit to the city-state since the mid-1980s.

Singapore's ties with Israel run long and deep.

Shortly after Singapore was declared independent of Malaysia in the mid-1960s, it sought Israel's assistance in establishing its military, after being turned away by several other countries, including its one-time colonial master, the U.K.

To keep the presence of Israeli soldiers in the city-state a secret, Singapore called them Mexicans.

There's also a long history of business ties, not just in the defense industries, but across the technology, solar and water segments.

Recently, Israeli officials have also traveled to Singapore to study the city-state's public housing system for ideas on how to help ease its own housing shortage. Ironically, in the 1960s, Singapore set up its own system after studying Israel's.

Netanyahu's trip comes after Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last year visited Israel as part of a tour of the Middle East. Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.

But there's been a long hiatus since an Israeli head of state last visited Singapore.

In 1986, Israel's then-President Chaim Herzog became the first Israeli head of state to visit the city-state. But when the Israeli embassy in Singapore announced the visit about a month ahead of time, it sparked protests across Muslim-majority countries Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, as well as diplomatic ire and pressure to cancel the visit. Both Malaysia and Indonesia removed their heads of mission during the visit.

Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, at a press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, February 15, 2017.
Cheriss May | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Malaysia's then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had a history of anti-Semitic remarks, reportedly considered the visit a personal slight. Protesters in southern Malaysia reportedly threatened to cut off the water supply to Singapore. Malaysia still does not have diplomatic relations with Israel and officially does not allow Israeli passport holders to travel to its country.

Indonesia also does not currently have official relations with Israel, although the country has quietly built up business ties.

The unrest spurred Herzog to cancel a visit to the Philippines, which had been planned as a stop on his Asian tour.

Two bombings in Singapore, among the very few terrorist attacks in the city-state, may also have been aimed at Israel.

In early 1985, an explosion struck the Faber House building. At the time, the building housed the Israeli embassy, and it was suspected to be the target, although neither it, nor the Canadian high commission, also located there, had previously received threats.

In 1991, a Palestinian guerrilla confessed to the bombing and said he was targeting Israel's embassy.

A second blast in 1986 also appeared aimed at Faber House, with the Israeli embassy suspected to have been the target, but the nearby Singapore Chinese Girls' School was damaged instead.

Netanyahu's visit to Singapore comes hard on the heels of the Israeli prime minister's meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the U.S. this week.

Based on opaque comments from Trump, that meeting might have signaled a sea change in the U.S. stance on Israel and the Palestinians seeking a "two-state solution" to achieve peace.

"I'm looking at a two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one that both parties like. I could live with either one," Trump said at a press conference with Netanyahu.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1

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