Indonesia’s careful response to the Abraham Accords
Sep 30, 2020 | Giora Eliraz
On Sept. 15, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed a peace treaty at a White House ceremony, after announcing an agreement to normalise relations about a month earlier. At the same ceremony, Israel also signed a peace declaration with Bahrain, which had chosen to follow in the UAE’s footsteps. This diplomatic breakthrough, brokered by the US, was viewed as a considerable blow by the Palestinian leadership, eroding the pan-Arab position that stipulated normalising relations between Israel and Arab countries would only follow Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Thus, the Palestinian leadership strongly denounced the agreements between Israel and the two Arab Gulf states, dubbing them a “stab in the back” and a “betrayal”.
Therefore, one may wonder why Indonesia, which usually clearly expresses its objections when it perceives there is damage being done to the Palestinian cause, in this case appears to have waited some time before issuing any response – and then only a highly cautious one.
On Sept. 18, a spokesperson for Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, Teuku Faizasyah, told reporters: “We understand the intention of the UAE and Bahrain to provide space for the relevant parties to negotiate and change the approach to solving the Palestinian issue through this agreement. However, the effectiveness of the agreement depends to a large extent on Israel’s commitment to respect it.” At the same time he made it clear that these agreements would not change Indonesia’s support for the Palestinians and that for Jakarta, “the settlement of the Palestinian issue needs to respect the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and internationally agreed parameters, including a two-state solution.”
Indonesia’s economic ties to the UAE appear to offer intriguing food for thought when understanding Indonesia’s hesitancy; less can be said about its economic relations with Bahrain. In recent years, Indonesia’s ties with the UAE have expanded significantly.
In January 2020, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) visited Abu Dhabi. During his visit, both countries signed business deals worth a reported US$23 billion involving considerable investment in the energy sector and infrastructure projects. These were described in media reports as an important achievement for both the UAE, which is pursuing its “Look East” policy to increase its share in global trade, and for the Jokowi Administration, which is looking to boost Indonesia’s economic growth.
Moreover, the UAE has also joined other international players in helping to fund the flagship project of Jokowi’s Administration, a plan to relocate the capital city from Jakarta to a yet-to-be-built city in the province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. The construction of this multi-billion dollar project is planned to start next year, with 2024 set as the target date for beginning the process of moving to this new capital. Indeed, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and the UAE’s de facto leader, has even agreed to lead the new capital’s steering committee.
Moreover, UAE investments have assumed even greater importance during the coronavirus crisis.
In addition, both countries, as well as Bahrain, share common interests in promoting moderate Islamic values in order to counter the growth of religious extremism, which is viewed as a threat by all three countries. What’s more, the Indonesian president and MbZ have reportedly forged a firm friendship.
Nevertheless, the dilemmas Jakarta faces regarding the agreements between Israel and the two Arab Gulf states appear to be acute. Though located far away from the Middle East, Indonesia has, for many years, displayed a strong commitment to the Palestinian cause in the international arena.
Furthermore, the Palestinian cause and claims about “occupied Palestinian territory” strongly touch some “collective nerves” in Indonesia, on both national and Islamic levels.
Indonesian support for the Palestinian people is strongly tied to long-standing national commitments to decolonisation and anti-colonialist sentiments, which can be traced back to both the Indonesian War of Independence against the Dutch (1945–1949), and Jakarta’s role in the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s. The spirit of anti-colonialism is even mentioned in the preamble to the constitution.
Thus, for example, Indonesian opposition to Israeli plans to extend sovereignty to parts of the West Bank (now shelved) have been framed in terms of ideological opposition to any form of colonialism.
Indonesian support of the Palestinians is thus commonly phrased in terms such as justice, legitimate rights and freedom.
In addition, the struggle of the Palestinians strongly touches feelings of Islamic solidarity within the huge Muslim population in Indonesia. In fact, the Palestinian struggle is largely perceived as an Islamic one. Perceptions and feelings within the Muslim majority have a strong impact on Indonesian foreign policy, which has always been significantly determined by domestic political considerations.
And there is another significant issue – Indonesia’s ability, as a democracy, to revisit the state’s decades-old position on the Palestinian issue is potentially very politically fraught, since any such change is likely to invoke deep emotions within the Muslim majority.
Indonesia of the post-1998 democratic era no longer has the severe restrictions on freedom of expression that were enforced during the previous authoritarian era. This means the Government does not control public opinion; rather, it has to attempt to navigate carefully through it. Therefore, any move that might be interpreted publicly as an erosion in the state commitment to the Palestinian cause is likely to meet an immediate backlash from opposition political actors, and more seriously, by radical Islamic groups which have already proven their ability to incite mass unrest on the street.
Certainly, the stormy events in Jakarta of late 2016 and early 2017 are deeply burned in the collective memory. That is the period in which zealous Islamist groups led massive protests, with marked religious and sectarian overtones, to topple a very strong political ally of President Jokowi at the time, the ethnic Chinese Christian Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok), accusing him of insulting Islam.
Presumably, the authorities in Jakarta are currently very attentive to a certain scathing criticism of the announcement of the agreement between the UAE and Israel in some Indonesian circles, and the denunciation of the deal by the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), the country’s top clerical authority. Certainly a warning from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation and a key civil society partner of the Government, that this agreement could trigger terror attacks, would have been listened to carefully by the Jokowi Administration.
Yet there are other voices urging caution and discretion.
A recent editorial in the Jakarta Post ends by saying: “Diplomacy has always been about finding the right balance among competing interests and the challenge now for Indonesia is how to balance its interest in finding partners to help it create growth and prosperity while at the same time fighting for basic human rights for the Palestinian people.”
Likewise, senior Indonesia academic and international law scholar Professor Hikmahanto Juwana was cited soon after the signing ceremony in Washington saying, among other things, “it would be better for Indonesia not to take a position…on the normalising relations between these three countries because it is still unclear whether this is the will of the people”. And another scholar, Yon Machmudi, argued that it was becoming increasingly difficult for Indonesia to support the Palestinian cause, on account of its good relations with the UAE, Bahrain and other Gulf countries, while adding: “Of course, there’s a commitment not to interfere in the affairs of other countries that have normalized [ties with Israel], but Indonesia will still gently remind them not to forget the plight of the Palestinians.”
Jakarta’s delayed and careful response to the UAE normalisation – designed to hopefully upset no one – suggests that such messages and views have also not been ignored in the corridors of power in Jakarta. The statement appears to have been driven by a need to carefully balance between domestic political considerations relating to political stability, decades-old commitments to the Palestinian cause and sustaining strong interest in cooperation with the Arab Gulf countries as part of a national vision for economic growth.