How agriculture led Indonesia’s defense minister to talk normalization with Israel

A series of meetings, statements and reports in the last few months of 2021 indicate that Israel and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state, have grown closer.

 Indonesia's flag (illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Indonesia's flag (illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Agricultural cooperation has played a big role in a recent warming of ties between Israel and Indonesia, with Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto leading the charge from Jakarta.

A recent series of meetings, statements and reports in the last few months of 2021 indicate that Israel and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state, have grown closer.

The two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations, but they cooperate in trade and tourism, and the Foreign Ministry maintains a Facebook page in Indonesian.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Indonesia bought arms from Israel, and Indonesian soldiers have trained in the Jewish state. In 1993, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin met then-Indonesian president Suharto in Jakarta. In 2016, then-deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely – now ambassador to the UK – said Israel was in constant contact with the Oceania multi-island nation and hoped to establish official ties.

Jakarta was in talks with the Trump administration in December 2020 to normalize ties with Jerusalem, and the US International Development Finance Corporation offered to double its investment in Indonesia, but to no avail.

A main street in central Jakarta  (credit: REUTERS)A main street in central Jakarta (credit: REUTERS)

Subianto met with National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata at a conference in Manama last November, and he was seen speaking with Israel’s chargé d’affaires in Bahrain, Itay Tagner, at the same event. After the photo was published, Subianto issued a statement, saying it was not prohibited for him to speak to Israeli officials when it is in the national interest.

Most recently, a senior diplomatic official confirmed that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had brought the topic up with his counterpart in Jakarta last month, and Jerusalem was informed in advance.

It’s a long process,” the official said. “There’s one meeting and then another and unmarked planes and all of the cinematic things that go with that – and then, one day, it happens.”

Some of those secret meetings came from an unexpected source: agricultural cooperation.

Last October, Subianto announced he planned to run for president of Indonesia in 2024. Like many other leaders of Arab and Muslim states eyeing relations with Israel, Subianto views Jerusalem as a stop on the way to better relations with Washington, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

But the presidential hopeful was already cooperating with Jerusalem during the preceding months on agriculture and food security.

SHMUEL FRIEDMAN, an agriculture consultant, entrepreneur and senior adviser to former agriculture minister Yair Shamir, has been working on an agriculture R&D center in Indonesia.

One of the partners on that project – and others involving Israeli agricultural know-how – is Subianto.

“Food security for a nation is no less important than security itself, and [Subianto] totally agrees with me on that,” Friedman said this week. “That’s what we know [how] to bring. At the end of the day, we bring results and see satisfied farmers, so it doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

Friedman said he was aware of normalization talks between Jerusalem and Jakarta, but is not involved on the political side.

“I believe that ties between countries need to start there, with food security,” he said. “Not with weapons – with food.”

One of Friedman’s business associates is Joey Allaham, a Damascus-born, New York-based businessman, perhaps best known for establishing the high-end kosher restaurant Prime Grill. He lobbied for the government of Qatar in the American Jewish community in 2017-2018, bringing leading community figures to Doha and attaining Qatari donations for pro-Israel organizations.

But Allaham also does business in Indonesia and throughout the Middle East and tries to connect Israelis to new markets. He has helped facilitate the cooperation between Friedman and Subianto.

In October 2020, Allaham and Indonesian Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan donated 15,000 units of Taffix, the Israeli-made anti-COVID-19 nasal spray, to Indonesian health workers and military personnel.

Allaham began working on taking Israel-Indonesia ties from trade and agriculture to diplomacy in early 2021.

Through a business contact who is a former senior IDF intelligence officer, he orchestrated a meeting between Subianto’s personal assistant Sudaryono B. Eng and an Israeli intelligence agent in Budapest last May.

From there, Israel and Indonesia moved to higher-level contacts, including a meeting in Paris.

During the course of 2021, Israel also offered to send COVID-19 vaccines to Indonesia. Jakarta was hesitant to accept the offer after Operation Guardian of the Walls, the Gaza war in May, but it was willing to continue behind-the-scenes normalization talks.

In the ensuing months, Washington became more involved.

The Biden administration is really pushing for Israel-Indonesia normalization, and it is very optimistic it will come to fruition, a source with knowledge of the talks said.

“I do believe this is the future,” the source said.