Australia/Israel Review

Asia Watch: Indonesian politics risks another sports debacle

Jun 29, 2023 | James Dorsey

Image: ANOC
Image: ANOC

Three months ago, I Wayan Koster, the Governor of Hindu-majority Bali, made his mark on the international stage by banning an Israeli squad from participating in this year’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

Operating at the intersection of domestic Indonesian politics, his country’s foreign relations and the fuzzy lines allegedly separating sports and politics, Mr Koster is weighing a repeat performance with a double whammy.

However, this time around, the stakes for Indonesia and Mr Koster may be higher.

If Mr Koster opposes Israeli participation again, Indonesia could be deprived not only of the hosting of the Association of National Olympic Committees’ (ANOC) World Beach Games, the world’s most significant water and beach sports event, but also of its general assembly scheduled to open on August 13, the day after the tournament.

Worse, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) could sanction Indonesia by banning it from the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games.

In 1964, the IOC barred Indonesia from participating in the Tokyo Summer Olympics after the Southeast Asian nation refused to let Israel and Taiwan compete in the 1962 Asian Games.

Under international sporting rules, hosts must guarantee access to qualifying athletes and teams irrespective of whether countries have diplomatic relations. Indonesia refuses to recognise Israel as long as the Jewish state fails to solve its long-standing dispute with the Palestinians.

So far, Mr Koster and the Indonesian Government, eager to avoid suffering additional reputational damage after FIFA stripped Indonesia of hosting rights earlier this year and moved the U-20 World Cup to Argentina, appear to be hedging their bets.

As Governor of a tourism-dependent island famed for its tolerance and hospitality that was hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, putting Bali at the centre of international controversy would seem not to be in Mr Koster’s interest.

In addition, the refusal, backed by Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, to host an Israeli World Cup team produced mixed results.

Mr Koster reportedly banned the Israeli soccer team at the behest of Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president of Indonesia and head of President Joko Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

The ban was intended to bolster support for Mr Pranowo, the PDP-I’s candidate in next year’s presidential election. Mr Widodo is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.

The move proved problematic because it juxtaposed two deep-seated Indonesian passions: support for the Palestinian cause and a love of soccer. Passion for soccer may be less of a consideration with the Beach Games, even though football is one of the tournament’s 14 disciplines.

“Instead of gaining an electoral boost by echoing anti-Israel Islamic elements, Koster and Pranowo’s public rejection of the Israeli youth soccer team has become a boomerang. These two men are attracting negative attention, not least from a large number of Indonesian football fans,” noted political scientist Burhanuddin Muhtadi.

Mr Koster and Indonesian Sports Minister Dito Ariotedjo appear to be betting that Israel will not qualify for any of the Beach Games’ disciplines. That could be a risky bet, with the last qualifying events only ending next month.

Mr Koster’s track record with the World Cup, coupled with the confusion, has ensured that, unlike the FIFA tournament, the Beach Games have not sparked anti-Israeli protests.

The Israel Olympic Committee insists that “Israeli athletes will participate in the ANOC only if they are given equal conditions to those of other countries.”

The Committee said the International Olympic Committee “is in continuous contact with us on the matter, and we are confident that they will uphold the equality and right of the State of Israel to compete.”

So far, Israel’s men’s basketball 3×3 team and Israeli woman swimmers are believed to have qualified for the Bali Beach Games.

Losing the Beach Games, just months after the World Cup loss, would cast a further shadow over Indonesia’s efforts to play a more prominent international role.

The Southeast Asian nation last year earned kudos for chairing the Group of 20 (G20), which brings together the world’s largest economies.

Controversy over the Beach Games puts Mr Widodo in a bind.

“Israeli participation in the Beach Games puts Widodo between a rock and a hard place. What is good for Indonesia may not be what his party thinks is good for its electoral prospects,” said an Indonesian analyst.

Dr James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, “The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey,” where this column originally appeared ( © James Dorsey, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

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