Soldiers carry the coffin of former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid (also known as Gus Dur) as they leave the residence in Jakarta, December 31, 2009.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The link between Indonesia and Israel can be traced back to the 17th century with the presence of the Jewish Diaspora during the Dutch colonial period. In 1921, a Dutch census estimated that around 2,000 Jews were living in Indonesia’s most populous island, Java. Historically, Indonesians were tolerant and accepting of their Jewish communities, which were underrepresented as a minority group. Anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiments in modern Indonesia are unique as they are imported.
Anti-Semitism was initially introduced by Nazi sympathizers in the Dutch East Indies. In 2014, BBC’s World Service Poll revealed that 75 percent of Indonesians viewed Israel negatively. This is unsurprising given the fact that Israel receives a regular spotlight in Indonesian media as the regional Goliath that colonized the state of Palestine that Indonesia has recognized since 1988.
Indonesia’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel is based on political pragmatism. After declaring its independence in 1945, Indonesia lobbied the Arab countries, hoping to gain their support in Indonesia’s struggle for international recognition, especially in the United Nations.
In 1950, foreign minister Moshe Sharett sent a telegram to Indonesian vice president Mohammad Hatta, extending full support and recognition for the newly established Republic of Indonesia from the State of Israel. However, Indonesia refused to reciprocate in order to maintain the support of Arab League countries.
While Indonesia has had close relations with the majority of the Muslim world thanks to its position as the world’s largest Muslim majority country, its constitution remains vehemently secular. Nevertheless, catering to political Islam sentiments in the Middle East is part of Indonesia’s diplomatic maneuver to leverage its large Muslim demographic. In contrast, support for and recognition of Israel’s existence would not have benefited Indonesia diplomatically in the United Nations, given the sour relations between Israel and majority of the Arab states.
Abdurrahman Wahid, the fourth Indonesian president, was a notable Judeophile. Wahid’s fascination with Israel started during his study in Iraq, where he befriended an Iraqi Jew and learned about Jewish culture and Judaism. In October 1999, Wahid openly called for the normalization of Indonesia-Israel relations. However, his idea was rejected by Islamist groups within Indonesia who quickly reframed the Israel-Palestine conflict as a strictly religious issue. Soon after, Indonesian foreign minister Alwi Shihab called for the establishment of trade relations despite the absence of diplomatic recognition on Indonesia’s side. Unfortunately, Wahid failed to win support from parliament and subsequent Indonesian presidents have not picked up interest in the normalization of Indonesia-Israel ties.
While Indonesia has been very open and outspoken in criticizing Israel over its occupation of Palestine, Israel bashing has become a ritualistic practice, projecting an obscure and distant external enemy to boost shallow nationalism, especially among the Muslim majority. Israel, Jews and anti-Semitism are popular topics among Indonesians despite the fact that most cannot differentiate between Jews, Israelis and Zionists.
Recent Indonesian engagements in Middle East affairs, as symbolized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Conference in March 2016, signified Indonesia’s rising soft power in the Muslim world. The conference itself was a talk shop that contributed very little tangible output for the Palestinians aside from the standard condemnations and calls to pressure Israel.
The economic facts, however, tell a different story: Indonesia’s economic relations with Israel remain stable and impressive. In 2015, Indonesia’s bilateral trade with Israel totaled $194 million. In contrast, bilateral trade with the State of Palestine amounted to a mere $3.6m. This trade data alone proves which country is more important to Indonesia, at least economically.
In December 2015, the Indonesian government proposed a visafree entry policy for foreign nationals with Israelis being included during the preliminary draft. Despite the fact that Israel failed to make it to the final list, the initial inclusion of Israelis reflects Indonesia’s pragmatism in its ties with Israel.
Economically, Indonesia will benefit from improved ties with Israel.
Unfortunately, Jakarta cannot formalize its “backstreet affairs” due to the complexity of Indonesia’s domestic political cleavages and foreign policy making processes. Historically, Indonesia’s anti-colonial rhetoric aimed at Israel fell short when it annexed Portuguese Timor in 1975. Indonesia’s own human rights record is flawed and Jakarta has also established full diplomatic relations with countries with human rights track records that are much worse than Israel’s.
Unfortunately, cultural difference also hampers further diplomatic engagement. Israel’s public diplomacy is characterized as outspoken and brash while Indonesia prefers avoiding open conflict, opting for harmonious engagements instead. This cultural clash was evident in March 2016, when Israel publicly denied Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi entry to Ramallah due to her refusal to visit Jerusalem to meet with the Israeli government. This diplomatic incident must not be taken lightly as it was considered boorish and coarse from Indonesia’s perspective.
Less than a month after the incident, the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had invited several Indonesian senior journalists to Israel and called for official diplomatic relations between Israel and Indonesia. Unfortunately, this gesture again irked Indonesian decision makers and antagonized Israel further as Indonesia did not want to publicize its informal ties with Israel and prefers more discretion in the dispensing of such information.
What is acceptable for Israeli diplomacy might not be accepted by Indonesia’s diplomatic tradition and cultural standards. If Israel truly desires to establish diplomatic relations with Indonesia, it should make concrete efforts to achieve a peaceful solution to the Palestine issue and be more aware of the complex influence of political Islam in Indonesia’s domestic politics and foreign policy. Clearly, Indonesian media could also help in humanizing Israel’s public image by deconstructing the narrative of Israel- Palestine issues. Diplomatic recognition from and cordial ties with the world’s largest Muslim majority country would benefit Israel’s efforts to normalize relations with other countries in the Muslim word.
While Abdurrahman Wahid’s philosemitism was an exception, it is clear that people-to-people relations are the best way to humanize Israel’s public image in Indonesia and hold great potential to bring both countries closer together for the benefit of their people.
The writer is a researcher for the Marthinus Academy in Jakarta, Indonesia.
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