Australia/Israel Review

Essay: Unexplored Possibilities

Aug 27, 2012 | Andrea Nadel

Essay: Unexplored Possibilities

Israel and Indonesia: An underdeveloped relationship


The current growing economic, political and military strength of numerous Asian countries has led observers to refer to the “Asian Century,” and the world has taken notice. Indonesia exemplifies Asia’s ascendancy: as the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, it has experienced significant economic growth in recent years and has been lauded as a model for successful democratisation in an Islamic context since the end of dictatorship in 1998. Increasing engagement is occurring between Indonesia and Western countries, and enhanced ties between Jerusalem and Jakarta also have the potential to generate mutually beneficial advantages.

This is despite recent setbacks, including the shelving of a proposal to open an Indonesian consulate in Ramallah, which might also have allowed unofficial contact with Israel, and Israel’s veto of a trip by Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr. Marty Natalegawa to Ramallah to support Palestinian aspirations.

Israel and Indonesia lack formal relations but have had limited, discreet, if erratic, unofficial ties for some time. Strengthening these ties would benefit each country. Indonesia has an interest in engaging with Israel’s vibrant start-up enterprise culture. Israel engagement could also provide Indonesia with additional Middle East leverage, particularly in their objective to assist the Palestinians’ political and economic development and pursuit of statehood. For Israel, enhanced Indonesia ties could enable it to expand its already growing economic and political presence in Asia, and Indonesia’s status as the world’s most populous Muslim country makes it particularly attractive. Moreover, Indonesia can represent a constructive role model as a society that is Islamic, democratising and developing economically – an example that deserves wider attention across the Islamic Middle East. Several factors impede the expansion of Israel-Indonesia ties, but other incentives do exist that could encourage a new way forward for better relations between these nations in the “Asian Century”.

Israel’s Asia Shift

Historically, Israel’s diplomatic efforts largely focused on the West in order to pursue its national security and foreign policy objectives, although it has of course pursued relationships with “third world” countries where possible.

Israel eagerly sought ties with and invested in several newly independent Sub-Saharan African countries in the 1950s and ’60s, but these relationships deteriorated sharply in the 1960s and ’70s – largely due to African leaders’ increasing reliance on the Arab world and the Soviet Union, and the growth of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), heavily influenced by the Arab caucus.

Israel also established early ties with Middle Eastern “periphery” states such as Turkey, which recognised Israel in 1949 and established full diplomatic relations in 1991, and Iran, although the 1979 Iranian Revolution ended Teheran and Jerusalem’s extensive history of overt and covert cooperation.

Israel had similar diplomatic experiences in Asia. Israel established full relations with Thailand in 1954 and formal diplomatic ties with China and India in 1992. Israel has more recently taken increasing notice of its diplomatic potential in an ascendant Asia. Speaking about this to the Australian’s Greg Sheridan on January 14, 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu remarked:

“[India and China] express a real appreciation for Israeli technology. Israel has become a world power in technology: in agriculture, in medicine, in irrigation, in telecommunications, in IT, in cyber and in many other areas. […] Our President just went to Vietnam. Israel, I would say, is quite popular in Asia. People judge that it makes sense to have a close collaboration with Israel in the 21st century, the century of knowledge.”

The Indian Experience

The history of Israel-India relations demonstrate that the slow development of fully-fledged ties did not prevent Israel from forging a strong regional presence. Although Zionist leaders attempted to enlist the support of leading Indian nationalists such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India resisted but did al least formally recognise Israel in 1950. A complicated domestic and international calculus – still largely relevant today – caused this delay. Many nationalist leaders in pre-independence India supported the Zionist cause, but those advocating for an India not established along sectarian lines feared that supporting Jewish sovereignty would strengthen rival nationalists advocating for separate statehood for Hindus and Muslims. Moreover, Palestine was a key issue for India’s Muslim community, one of the world’s largest, making it paradoxically important for Indian nationalists to embrace the Palestinian cause as a way of uniting Hindu and Muslim communities.

Internationally, India’s support of anti-colonialist movements; its NAM membership; and its strategically important relations with the Soviet bloc and Middle East nations delayed formal diplomatic ties with Israel for four decades. Throughout this period, however, Israel-India interactions expanded subtly, and the fall of the Soviet bloc and end of the Cold War enabled Israel and India to formalise full diplomatic ties in 1992.

Israel and India’s relations have since expanded rapidly at many levels. Bilateral trade has increased from US $200 million in 1992 to US $4.7 billion in 2010, not including an additional estimated US $1 billion in bi-lateral military trade. India and Israel also share a common struggle against violent and non-violent Islamist extremism. Israel and India’s state governments have frequently cooperated on technological and agricultural issues, and natural resource challenges. The degree to which India-Israel relations have expanded despite historical challenges suggests that what was by necessity a gradualist approach was nonetheless effective to this end.

While different in many respects, enough similarities exist between the Indian and Indonesian situations to suggest that Israel-Indonesia ties could also be strengthened through a similar dynamic.

Indonesia as Comparable to India

Just as India gained independence from Britain in 1947 and Israel acquired independence in 1948, Indonesia became independent from the Netherlands in 1949. Like India, it quickly aligned itself with the NAM. India and Indonesia also represent models of successful democratic transitions after centuries of colonialism; Indonesia’s more recent case is striking because it suffered for decades under dictatorship yet today its democracy, although still in its early stages, is widely considered to have taken root. Moreover, Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy demonstrates its ability to reconcile Islam and democracy by creating a basically tolerant environment in which a civic society can develop. It is therefore potentially relevant as a model for successful democratisation for the Islamic Middle East, which grapples against the odds with these issues today.

Indonesia also has a complicated domestic and international political calculus that has thwarted efforts to expand relations with Israel. India and Indonesia are each home to large Muslim communities, and strong support for Palestine as a Muslim communal issue is firmly rooted in both countries. While these comparabilities suggest that a framework exists in which Israel and India’s gradualist record could be replicated in the Indonesia/Israel relationship, several factors unique to Indonesia need to be considered.

Impeding Factor – Indonesia’s Islamist Challenge

While historic and strong support for the Palestinian cause persists, Islamist extremism perhaps remains the gravest obstacle preventing stronger Indonesia-Israel relations. The vast majority of Indonesian Muslims practice a moderate and peaceful brand of Islam, but the resurgence of violent Islamism since the 1980s and the terror attacks that have followed since Suharto’s fall in 1998 have renewed concerns about its threat to Indonesian democracy.

Indonesia’s constitution is based on the Pancasila (“Five Moral Principles”) ideology, which comprises the principles upon which Indonesian nationalist leaders wished to establish Indonesian national identity and unity. A theistic but secular national doctrine, Pancasila’s democratic principles were arguably delayed by decades of post-independence dictatorship. However, Indonesian leaders relied on it as a bulwark against Islamist extremists wishing to frame Indonesian society in strictly Islamic terms. Prior to democratisation, the Sukarno and Suharto regimes intentionally limited Islamic and Islamist political activity.

With the end of dictatorship and the advent of the chaotic “Reformasi” democratisation period, Islamist groups became more assertive and competed for primacy with popular pro-democracy elements. Successive Indonesian governments have thus had to contend with the growing threat of violent Islamism. After the al Qaeda-affiliated Indonesian Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah killed 202 people in the 2002 Bali bombings, 12 people in the 2003 bombing of the Jakarta Marriott hotel, and 11 more in the 2004 bombing of Australia’s Jakarta Embassy, Indonesia aggressively prosecuted, and convicted many, if not all, of the country’s most notorious Islamist terror perpetrators. However, despite this impressive record, many observers still worry that the current Indonesian Government is tacitly appeasing Islamists by unduly relaxing its previous vigilance.

The relatively lenient 20-year prison sentence that was recently given to convicted Bali bombing mastermind Umar Patek is one example. Another example is the failure to address the increased persecution of Indonesian religious minorities including atheists, Christians and adherents of Islam’s Ahmadiyya sect. In a particularly notorious case, an Islamist mob killed three Ahmadiyyans in west Java in February 2011. The Government’s response was dismaying; 12 of those convicted in the case only received sentences between three and six months for “inciting hatred” while a survivor of the attack was sentenced to six years in prison for not obeying police orders.

Judaism is not among Pancasila’s five protected religions, raising concern for observers who note that virulent antisemitism is prevalent in Indonesian Islamist rhetoric, although almost no Jews remain there today. As Islamist rhetoric persists in Indonesian political discourse and the government appears to accede to elements of the Islamist agenda by not adequately protecting religious minorities, the Islamist threat may be the most important impediment to fostering Israel-Indonesia relations.

Conducive Factors
i – Indonesia’s lack of homegrown antisemitism
Despite very real concerns about Islamism and antisemitism, the antisemitism that exists in Indonesia today was imported with the rise of European Nazism and the Islamism that brought antisemitic literature and thought from the Middle East. The significance of this is that although Bahasa translations of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” have been available in Indonesia since the 1980s, hatred of Jews, whose presence in Indonesia has been small since their arrival in the 1600s, is primarily an imported 20th century phenomenon – insidious but not deeply rooted.

ii – Discreet cooperation in areas of common interest
Indonesia did not reciprocate Israel’s formal recognition in 1950, and the possibility of relations deteriorated during the 1950s as Indonesia actively championed the anti-colonialist cause in the NAM and President Sukarno characterised Israel as a Middle East colonial bulwark. However, Israel and Indonesia shared backchannel military ties throughout the 1970s and ’80s, partly out of President Suharto’s interest in consolidating power by reinforcing the Indonesian military’s preeminence in society, and partly out of the Indonesian military’s quiet admiration of Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War resilience. While covert military and economic ties developed between the two countries from 1967 onwards, concerns about a domestic Islamist backlash and Arab hostility to Israel prevented Indonesia from formalising or even acknowledging such ties.

While significant bureaucratic and diplomatic hurdles exist, Israeli-Indonesian business ties also appear to be growing somewhat. Years of painstaking relationship-building between Israeli entrepreneurs and their Indonesian counterparts appears to be reaping dividends. For example, according to the Jerusalem Post, the first Israeli business delegation visited Indonesia in 2009, organised by the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute and its Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry’s Singapore commercial attaché. The Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce (IICOC) was established that same year with the goal of increasing Israeli-Indonesian business ties. In an interview with the Israel-Asia Centre, IICOC chairman Emanuel Shahaf noted:

“Once trade reaches a certain volume, the business sector tends to put pressure on the politicians to support mutual business and trade activities […]. Also the more business there is, the more it becomes visible, and eventually we hope that the political sensitivity of trade with Israel will become a non-issue.”

Shahaf estimated to the IICOC that trade between Israel and Indonesia could be as high as US $800 million. Tentative steps towards collaboration have also been instituted on agricultural issues, which, as with India, have been identified as a potential area of common interest.

Indonesia and Israel also collaborate on disaster-preparedness. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Indonesia killed nearly 170,000 people. Israel was one of the first countries to offer Indonesia assistance. In order to address the systemic unpreparedness that made the tsunami so devastating, Indonesian doctors and emergency service personnel have since regularly visited Israeli hospitals and disaster-preparedness programs. In 2008, Magen David Adom (MDA) and Muhammadiya, one of Indonesia’s largest and oldest Islamic organisations, signed an emergency medical services cooperation agreement which included sending Israeli emergency service professionals to Indonesia. In 2010, MDA signed an agreement with the Indonesian Red Crescent (PMI), and then-chair Yusuf Kalla, a former Indonesian vice-president, came to Israel for the signing.

These types of exchanges have since grown. In 2011, five Indonesian medical professionals completed Haifa’s Rambam Medical Centre’s emergency preparedness course, and Haifa’s Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Centre hosted a delegation from YAKKUM, Indonesia’s largest Christian organisation, that also gave Indonesians the opportunity to learn from Israel’s expertise.

iii – Indonesia’s interest in regional leadership
Indonesia’s interest in contributing to Middle Eastern and global leadership could also encourage it to pursue closer Israel ties. Many believe, justifiably, that its record provides a viable alternative to the increasingly Islamist “Turkish model” of democratisation for a more attentive Middle East. Moreover, Jakarta’s growing self-confidence and diplomatic standing have increased its confidence in playing a more proactive role internationally.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just another example of where enhanced Indonesian engagement could be productive. Indonesian leaders since Sukarno have supported the Palestinian cause energetically and repeatedly criticised Israel’s policies. However, Indonesian leaders have had growing contacts with Israel since the 1990s; the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords in particular increased the possibility of expanded relations between Israel and the Muslim world and led to Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin’s brief, unofficial 1993 Jakarta visit. Indonesia also subsequently relaxed some of the travel, trade and communication restrictions it had imposed on Israel since the 1950s.

Several Indonesian leaders have also visited Israel since Oslo, including Abdurrahman Wahid, who in the 1990s headed the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and was later Indonesia’s first democratically elected president, and his longtime ally and fellow Muslim intellectual Djohan Effendi. Both visited Jerusalem to witness the signing of the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. Moreover, thousands of Indonesian Muslims and Christians have visited Israel since the 1990s to visit their faiths’ holy sites. Several groups of leading Indonesian journalists, sponsored by AIJAC’s Rambam program and the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange program, have also visited Israel over the last five years and have reported prominently about their experiences in major Indonesian media outlets.

Some Indonesian leaders have also endeavoured to upgrade engagement with Israel. The late President Abdurrahman Wahid was the most active in attempting to strengthen ties with Israel. A lifelong admirer of Jewish thought and culture, Wahid actively spoke out against antisemitism and ignorance of Israel in Indonesia. He repeatedly defended his decision to promote better relations with Israel and visited the country several times. Throughout his life he continued to engage with Israel and global Jewry, particularly by serving on the board of directors of Israel’s Peres Centre for Peace. He constantly encouraged peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, even at points when the prospects for of such negotiations were remote.

While Indonesia continues today to increase its Middle East engagement, it approaches Israel more cautiously. For instance, Indonesia contributed a significant number of soldiers as peacekeepers to UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Its vocal criticism of Israel has also continued, particularly after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. However, effective Israel-Indonesia ties have endured. According to the Times of Israel, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry recently announced its intention to open a consulate in Ramallah headed by an ambassador-level diplomat who would also maintain unofficial contact with Israeli interlocutors. While the Israeli Government responded coolly and the proposal is on hold, it can nevertheless be seen as reflecting Indonesia’s growing confidence in its ability to become a regional power broker. Moreover, to project its experience as a viable model for the currently turbulent Middle East, as well as to assist the Palestinians, in part through increased engagement with Israel, would be incentives for its continued involvement with the region.

Despite the current cool climate, several indicators suggest that Israel and Indonesia’s discreet yet growing relations could eventually edge towards upgraded ties, and maybe even formal diplomatic relations in the future. India and Indonesia are to some extent comparable, both as economically developing countries with established democracies – albeit at different stages – and in their respective experiences in developing Israel ties. The Indian case might be replicated in Indonesia-Israel relations if they continue to expand incrementally.

While Indonesia’s Islamist challenge impedes its successful democratisation, it also restrains its ability to pursue further Israel ties. However, Indonesia is a young, developing democracy with a rapidly expanding economy and an interest in regional leadership. This provides Jakarta with incentives to engage with Israel: to benefit from its start-up culture, its strong economy and the opportunity to gain leverage over Jerusalem, and to serve a constructive role in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indonesia’s Islamic and democratic experience also provides a potentially positive model for the Islamic Middle East; a possibility Israel and other democratic societies also welcome. Finally, as Netanyahu’s comments on Asia as a whole clearly indicate, Israel’s goal to further upgrade its Asia foothold surely also includes an interest in expanding its economic and political engagement with Indonesia, an increasingly important regional player.


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