Photo by: Heng Chivoan
Children celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, marking the 61st anniversary of Israel's founding, at the Krousar Thmey Centre on Wednesday.
DIPLOMATS, government officials and other guests gathered in Phnom Penh on Wednesday to celebrate the independence of Israel, a country that is currently expanding its political and economic links with Cambodia and the wider Asian region.
To celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, which marks the 61st anniversary of Israel's founding, the country's ambassador to Thailand opened a new playground for street children at the Krousar Thmey centre in Phnom Penh.
"I thought it would be the best way to celebrate Israeli independence day, not just to have another reception, [but] to do something meaningful for street children," Ambassador Yael Rubinstein said in an interview Wednesday.
"It will also acknowledge the fact that Israel is also a young country that wants to do something meaningful for Cambodia."
Rubinstein said the celebration - the fourth to be held in Phnom Penh - symbolised the country's increasing economic and political engagement with Cambodia and the Asia-Pacific region.
"Israel is a part of Asia. We belong to Asia and we look to Asia as our home," she said, adding that the country has just opened a new consulate in Guangzhou - its fourth in China - and re-opened its embassy in New Zealand.
Rubinstein added that Cambodia's agricultural potential makes it a good destination for Israeli investment and a willing recipient of its sophisticated water-management and desalination technologies.
"Israel's main aim has always been to work with countries, especially friendly countries. We'd like to share our know-how."
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Cambodia and Israel have enjoyed good relations since they re-established diplomatic relations in 1993.
So far, Cambodian exports to Israel have been confined to shoes and garments, totaling between US$80,000 and $90,000 per year, but he said the commercial relationship has strong potential for expansion.
"We still have a lot of empty agricultural land that could be planted with crops other than rice, such as corn, animal feed and so forth," he said.
He said Israel has provided scholarships to 55 officials between 1994 and 2007, mostly in the field of agriculture.
Pan Sorasak, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce who held talks with an Israeli trade delegation in March, also welcomed the growing links, which he said were a result of the government's attempt to attract foreign investment.
"A lot can be gained for us," he said.
Israel's push into Asia comes at the same time as other Middle Eastern countries - including Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Iran - are also investing in agriculture and other sectors. But though the simmering Palestinian conflict looms large in Israeli politics, Rubinstein said it has played little role in the country's push into East Asia.
Likewise, Cambodia's own opposition to Tel Aviv's occupation of the West Bank territories has been no impediment to establishing a strong relationship.
"Of course, we would very much like Cambodia to change the way it votes on many issues in the UN, but it's not a condition," she said.
"I think Cambodia should be able to accept good relations with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia [and] Israel, and I welcome that. I think it could help Cambodia, it could help us, and maybe help the world."