Australia/Israel Review

Asia Watch: Sign posts

Feb 1, 2022 | Michael Shannon

Yahya Cholil Staquf: Previous visitor to Israel (Image: Nahdlatul Ulama)
Yahya Cholil Staquf: Previous visitor to Israel (Image: Nahdlatul Ulama)

Indonesia watchers in Israel and the wider Jewish world are long-accustomed to looking for hints that Jakarta will someday allow the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. 

The Jerusalem Post reported in January that developments over the previous six months suggest a warming of ties between the two, with encouragement from key individuals and the US Government. 

In the final weeks of the Trump Administration, the US International Development Finance Corporation offered to double its investment in Indonesia as an incentive for Jakarta to normalise ties with Jerusalem, without success.

However, the central Indonesian figure in recent developments turns out to be serial presidential candidate and current Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, who met with Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata at a conference in Bahrain last November, and was seen speaking with Israel’s chargé d’affaires in Manama, Itay Tagner, at the same event. After the photo was published, Prabowo issued a statement, saying it was not prohibited for him to speak to Israeli officials when it is in the national interest.

Prabowo was also revealed to be a partner in the development of an agricultural research centre in Indonesia, to which significant input has come from Shmuel Friedman, an Israeli agriculture consultant, entrepreneur and adviser to former Israeli agriculture minister Yair Shamir. 

“Food security for a nation is no less important than security itself, and [Probowo] totally agrees with me on that,” Friedman told the Jerusalem Post. “At the end of the day, we bring results and see satisfied farmers, so it doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

Also connected is Joey Allaham, a New York-based entrepeneur with business interests in Indonesia and throughout the Middle East. In 2020, he liaised with Indonesian Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan to donate a shipment of Taffix, the Israeli-made anti-COVID-19 nasal spray, to Indonesian health workers and military personnel.

Follow-up is occurring. The Associated Press reported on Jan. 17 that a delegation of Indonesian officials recently visited Israel “to learn how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic” and met with Israeli officials, according to Israel’s Army Radio. The date of the visit was not specified. 

Without confirming the report, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said that Israel “believes in international cooperation in every regard to the fight against the coronavirus” and is prepared to share information and experience.

The Biden Administration is continuing the push for Israel-Indonesia normalisation – a senior Israeli diplomat told the Jerusalem Post that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had raised the topic with his counterpart in Jakarta in December. 

Normalisation could yet receive another gentle push from within Indonesia. 

The new leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest mass-Muslim organisation, is very much inspired by the idealism, spirit of inclusiveness and humanity of former president (and long-time NU leader) Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, who was famously open-minded towards Israel and the Jewish world.

Yahya Cholil Staquf, a former presidential spokesperson for Wahid, was elected chairman in December, defeating two-term incumbent Said Aqil Siradj and three other candidates in a vote during NU’s 34th congress. He, too, has visited Israel and faced criticism at home, after he accepted an invitation in 2018 from the Israel Council on Foreign Relations to give a speech in Jerusalem on the solution to religious conflicts, in which he emphasised the Islamic concept of rahmah (affection for and awareness of others). 

Maintaining that he was not in Israel as an NU or government representative, “Gus Yahya” insisted he was continuing Wahid’s mission to foster world peace and that he had not broken faith with Indonesia’s traditionally strong support for the Palestinian cause. But when asked by the Times of Israel whether he would favour political relations between Jerusalem and Jakarta, he replied: “Yes, of course. See, we are in the middle of complex problems that need to be dealt [with] comprehensively in a global manner.”

Addressing the question again in a recent interview, Yahya shifted emphasis somewhat, stating that the conflict needs to be resolved fundamentally, namely through clarifying territorial boundaries in accordance with international law. 

“A lot of these territorial boundaries are just unilateral claims by both Israel and the surrounding Arab and Islamic countries. This must be resolved first. So if, for example, Indonesia says it is normalising relations with Israel, which [Israel] is it? The boundaries must be clear so as not to cause new problems,” he said. 

Although he served as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council during President Joko Widodo’s first term, Yahya maintains that he doesn’t seek to position himself nor NU as political players. Rather, to “campaign as hard as possible to prevent identity politics. We must encourage political stakeholders to build consensus that they would not capitalise on identity, especially religious identity, as a political weapon,” he said.

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