Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu: We are pivoting toward Asia

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (centre R) and his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong (C) inspect the guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony at the Istana presidential palace in Singapore on February 20, 2017.
Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

During a visit to Singapore, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that his country was pursuing greater ties across Asia.

"Israel is pivoting towards Asia in a very clear and purposeful way," he told a press conference and dinner event, according to a video from an attendee provided to CNBC Asia.

The language echoed former U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to pivot U.S. diplomatic relations toward Asia, in part to counter China's growing power, but that plan appeared to have been abandoned by the current U.S. president, Donald Trump.

Netanyahu said he was set to visit China next month and that India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi would visit Israel later this year. The comments came during the first visit to Singapore by an Israeli head of state in three decades.

Business ties between Israel and Asia have been growing.

Earlier this year, Israel and China reportedly reached a deal for around 6,000 Chinese construction workers to come to Israel to help with housing construction. Israel has long faced a housing shortage, in part due to a lack of sufficient construction workers.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu was scheduled to visit a Singapore public housing estate, a visit the Israeli prime minister said he requested as he wanted to learn how the island-nation had resolved the issue. 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.

Israel and China have agreed to begin negotiating a free-trade agreement. Additionally, Chinese investment in Israeli technology companies and in infrastructure has been growing and Chinese tourists have been heading to the country.

India and Israel have had long-standing economic, trade and defense ties, with India among the largest customers for Israel's military equipment.

Israel's prime minister highlighted that his country cooperates with Singapore on the economy, trade and technology.

"This strengthens both our countries. We have extraordinary reputations within the world, but the fact is when we combine them, we have an even more powerful brand," Netanyahu said. "That brand is very powerful. We spoke today about collaborating with third countries. We're already doing that in one African case. I think we should do that in many countries in Africa, many countries in the Pacific."

Netanyahu noted that a joint research and development fund with Singapore had already funded 150 projects.

Netanyahu's visit to Singapore followed a visit by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Israel in April, which marked the first visit by a Singapore head of state to the Middle Eastern country, in a trip that included other nations in the region.

Lee noted at the press conference that SingTel, a Singapore telecommunications company, and Singapore state-owned investment company Temasek were both investing in Israel, while many Israeli startups were using Singapore as a base to invest in Asia.

Lee said that he had a "full discussion" with Netanyahu about the developments in the Middle East and the desire for progress on peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Lee reiterated Singapore's support for a "two-state" solution as the "only way" to bring peace and security.

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.

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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.

In Singapore on Monday, Netanyahu spoke of his recent visits to Muslim-majority countries Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, saying those countries "want to seize the future" with tolerance and acceptance.

"We all have a stake in making sure tolerance and diversity and progress win the day. That modernity wins the day against barbarism and medievalism," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu's visit to Singapore on Monday was quieter than the last visit of an Israeli head of state to the island-nation.

In 1986, Israel's then-President Chaim Herzog became the first Israeli head of state to visit Singapore. But when the Israeli embassy in Singapore announced the visit about a month ahead of time, protests erupted across Muslim-majority countries Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, and Singapore faced diplomatic ire and pressure to cancel the visit.

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

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