By Rozanna Latiff
KUALALUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak vowed on Friday to use every means to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a tough stand likely to win him support among Muslim voters.
Najib has been embroiled in a graft scandal over a state-run fund, and has faced unprecedented criticism from former ruling party stalwarts, making the support of members of the Muslim, ethnic Malay majority vital in a general election next year.
“We will continue to fight on this issue, using every available means, through political and diplomatic channels, through discussion and prayer, until one day, God willing, Jerusalem belongs to the Palestinian people,” Najib told a rally of about 1,500 in the administrative capital of Putrajaya.
He said he would not “sacrifice the sanctity of Islam” despite his friendship with Trump. Najib visited the White House in September.
“It is our first duty as Muslims to uphold the religion. If Jerusalem is a sacred land for Muslims, then it is upon us to free it from the grasps of Zionists,” Najib said.
Najib and his ruling party have been burnishing their Islamic credentials with the aim of boosting their chances in the general election, which must be held by mid-2018.
About 60 percent of Malaysia’s population is ethnic Malay Muslim, with most of the rest ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian.
Najib, who did not mention the election in his speech at the rally, is hoping to win a third term despite the multi-billion dollar corruption scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that has dogged his premiership for two years.
U.S. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions this month described the scandal at the sovereign fund set up by Najib as the worst form of kleptocracy. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed several lawsuits to seize more than $1.7 billion in assets believed to have been stolen from 1MDB.
Sessions did not identify any officials he thought were corrupt.
Najib, who served as chairman of 1MDB’s advisory board, has consistently denied any wrongdoing at the fund, and Malaysia’s attorney-general has cleared him of any wrongdoing.
The ruling party united behind Najib at a conference this month, letting him stand unopposed in a party leadership contest due next year. A rebounding economy and currency have also helped him improve his image.
Four years ago, the ruling party crept back into power despite losing the popular vote and registering its worst ever election performance.
This time, the challenge is coming from the veteran former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who gave up the premiership in 2003 after 22 years in power and had been Najib’s mentor.
Mahathir, the chairman of the opposition coalition, last week called Trump an “international bully” and a “villain” for his recognition of Jerusalem.
Mahathir said on Twitter the Friday rally could “only be meaningful if it results in the BN government acting against Donald Trump and the United States”, referring to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
Malaysia was one of the 128 countries that defied Trump on Thursday and voted in favour of a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for the United States to drop its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Writing by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Robert Birsel)