indonesian journalists .
(photo credit: The Israel Project)
Indonesian anchorwoman Metuya Hafid hosted an on-air discussion last year with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "I have to say he spoke very impressively and seemed to win over our audience," said Hafid.
This week the petite presenter for Metro TV Newsis getting her very first look at the nation Ahmadinejad would like to see wiped off the map; Hafid is here as a participant in a ground-breaking first visit to Israel by a group of top Indonesian journalists.
Although Israel has no diplomatic relations with Indonesia, it has long maintained unofficial ties with the world's most populous Muslim nation (238.5 million).
Several Israeli officials have made brief visits there, and former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid was an outspoken advocate of normalizing relations.
But despite reports of covert security and economic cooperation between Jakarta and Jerusalem, Indonesia has thus far refused to even permit the opening of joint trade offices, and no Indonesian correspondent reports from here.
"We would probably need to see a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians before full diplomatic relations are permitted," said Bambang Harymurti, editor-in-chief of Tempo Weekly magazine.
He is one of eight journalists in the group brought here through the joint efforts of the Australian Israel & Jewish Affairs Committee (AIJAC) and the American Jewish Committee.
"This is part of our continuing efforts to bring here individuals of influence from southeast Asian nations, some of which, such as Indonesia, as yet have no official relations with Israel," said Dr. Colin Rubenstein, executive director of AIJAC, who accompanied the group.
"With Indonesia, we are helped by the fact that there is intense cooperation now between Australia and Indonesia on all levels, including the fight against terrorism. There has also been a liberalization process in Indonesia that includes a freer and more diverse media there, which includes, in some cases, presenting a more nuanced, accurate picture of the situation in the Middle East."
Nonetheless, Rubenstein added, arranging the journalists' visit was a complex undertaking, done in consultation with Indonesians such as Wahid, and with what he called the "tacit approval" of the authorities. Still, he said that some media outlets refused to come.
One who jumped at the chance was Endy Bayuni, editor-in-chief of the English-language Jakarta Post.
"There is new thinking in Indonesia, including in the government, about upgrading relations with Israel," said Bayuni, "although that always generates negative reactions from the extreme Islamic politicians. But Israelis are quietly doing business with Indonesians, and in places like Bali you can see Israeli flags openly displayed in tourist stores or restaurants."
The Jakarta Post, he added, regularly ran columns by Emanuel Shahaf, a former Israeli diplomat to southeast Asia.
Since arriving Thursday, the Indonesians have met with several Israeli and Palestinian officials, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who told them that the pace of normalization of relations between Muslim nations such as Indonesia and Israel should follow the quickening pace of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
On Sunday the group went on an all-day guided helicopter tour conducted by The Israel Project, which took them from Sderot up to the Golan Heights.
They were especially interested in the situation on the Lebanese border, since last year a group of 1,000 Indonesian soldiers joined the enlarged multinational peacekeeping force put into place in southern Lebanon after the end of the Second Lebanon War.
The Israeli approval for Indonesia's participation was in and of itself a sign of relations warming "under-the-radar," as Jerusalem had earlier said it would not okay any Arab or Muslim countries with whom it did not have open relations.
"There is a lot of interest in Indonesia about how those troops are doing," said Bayuni, "especially since one of the soldiers is the son of our current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono."
The visit has been an eye-opening experience for some of the journalists. "Frankly, before coming here I thought of Israel as something of a police state," said Harymuti, "but you probably see more police and soldiers on the streets of Jakarta."
At the end of their helicopter tour of the country, all the Indonesian journalists had the same reaction, one perhaps not surprising from citizens of a nation formed out of some 17,500 islands stretching out over 5,000 km. "Israel," concluded Harymuti, "is a small country."
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