Israel’s hopes for Indonesia
Aug 2, 2021 | Giora Eliraz
The story of Israel-Indonesia relations is an ongoing saga. For decades, Indonesia has adhered strictly to a position that stipulates establishing diplomatic relation with Israel is dependent on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via a two-state solution along the pre-1967 borders with east Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian independent state. In other words, Palestinian state first, diplomatic relations with Israel second. Indonesia has even framed this position into a formative national commitment to oppose “colonialism” that is embodied in the preamble to the national constitution. This government position seems to have support from across society, underlined by strong sentiments of Islamic solidarity within the dominant Muslim majority, who generally see the Palestinian struggle as a pan-Islamic issue.
Soon after his election in 1999, the late Abdurrahman Wahid, the first democratically-elected president of Indonesia, tried to substantially change Jakarta’s policy towards Israel, planning to move towards official diplomatic relations by first establishing direct trade ties. However Wahid’s plan met with robust opposition within Indonesia and his government was forced to abandon it. Since then the relations between Israel and Indonesia have continued to languish. Yet there have been some complexities that raise questions about the possibility of future change.
Indonesia still regularly denies having any interactions with Israel that might be interpreted as official contact. In addition, in the global arena, Indonesia demonstrates a constant and strong commitment to the Palestinian cause and plays a consistent leading role in diverse international forums in promoting and defending that cause.
Yet, despite this, Israel has never become discouraged; its officials have repeatedly expressed a strong interest in having diplomatic relations with Indonesia, while stressing the potential benefits for Indonesia,
Two decades after Wahid’s unsuccessful efforts to advance Indonesia-Israel relations, the subject made headlines again for a short while last year. It was largely triggered by the American initiative in the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency to attempt to achieve normalised relations between Israel and Sunni Arab states, which led to normalisation agreements with four such states, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Probably based mainly on conjecture and wishful thinking, the name of Indonesia was raised as possibly being part of this normalisation trend. Indonesia is, after all, a significant Sunni Muslim majority, non-Arab country that shares with United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco a deep interest in promoting moderate Islamic values to counter religious extremists, so this sounded superficially plausible.
Media reports on alleged diplomatic efforts by the Trump Administration to persuade Indonesia to recognise Israel and establish ties fed expectations of a change in Indonesian policy. However, Jakarta quickly denied any such plans, and reaffirmed its traditional emphasis on the need for the Palestinian people to gain independence under a two-state solution. The Indonesian Government was explicit that it would avoid taking any steps to normalise relations with Israel until a permanent and comprehensive peace between the Palestinians and the Israel is achieved. It was also argued, as usual, that its position is consistent with the preamble to the Indonesian Constitution.
Furthermore, in response to the escalation in May 2021 in east Jerusalem and the fighting between Israel and Hamas, the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, the three Muslim-majority Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, issued a statement on “the Escalation of Violence by Israelis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” In the statement, issued following an emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) convened by Saudi Arabia, the three leaders strongly condemned among other things alleged “repeated blatant violations and aggressions, carried out by the Israelis, targeting civilians throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory…” The three leaders also requested the United Nations General Assembly convene an emergency session for putting an end “to the atrocities carried out against the Palestinian people.”
Yet despite this, a few weeks later, in June, the Israeli Ambassador to Singapore, Sagi Karni, whose embassy also handles developments related to Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, expressed Israel’s hope to work towards establishing ties with these three Muslim majority nations. At the same time he strongly rejected the accusations against Israel, stressing that the criticism from the three nations’ leaders was “not honest” and ignored the true nature of the conflict, which was not between Israel and the Palestinian people but between Israel and Hamas, an antisemitic organisation. He noted that Hamas had been intentionally launching weapons from civilian areas in Gaza and aiming them at Israeli civilians, whereas Israeli forces sought to avoid “collateral damage” by warning occupants to vacate Gaza buildings that were being targeted. He urged that the only way for any party to have meaningful influence over what happens in the Middle East is by establishing relations with Israel: “We are willing to talk, we are willing to meet, and the door is open as far as we are concerned. I don’t think it’s so difficult to find us.”
Yet the reality remains that national ideology and history, foreign policy calculations and domestic considerations, in particular a deep, strong commitment to the Palestinian cause rooted in Islamic solidarity, prevail within the dominant Muslim majority in all three countries. It thus remains hard to see a near-term change in the rigid Indonesian stance on establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, especially since concrete political initiatives towards solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state solution currently look unlikely.
Yet Israel has good reason to keep trying. From its earliest years of statehood, the small Jewish state has sought to mitigate the effects of the hostile regional neighbours it faced by looking for diplomatic inroads and friendly relations beyond the Arab world, including by finding ways into the Muslim world via countries such as Turkey and pre-revolutionary Iran.
Indonesia, as the world’s largest Muslim-majority state, has a particular significance, and also shares much in common with Israel nowadays – as a country that highly aspires to rapid economic growth, development and technological modernisation, and a democratic polity with a strong commitment to the struggle against terrorism and religious extremism.
In 1979, Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt, which for decades it had regarded as its greatest enemy. Since then, several other significant moderate Sunni Arab nations followed this historical breakthrough, beginning with Jordan in 1994 and followed by the four Abraham Accords nations last year. Given this achievement and the historical trendline it represents, there remains every reason for Israel to continue to hope and work towards an eventual breakthrough in its relations with Sunni Muslim majority countries in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia.
Dr. Giora Eliraz is an Associate Fellow in the Truman Institute at Hebrew University and a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Inter-Disciplinary Centre (IDC) in Herzliya, as well as at the Forum for Regional Thinking (FORTH).