Experts weigh in on normalization between Israel and Indonesia

'Should Indonesia normalize or even take a normalizing step like opening a commercial trade office with Israel, it would be a big deal,' says Dennis Ross.

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

WASHINGTON – It was reported last week that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in meetings with officials in Jakarta earlier this month, raised the possibility of Indonesia normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel. According to reports in Axios and Walla, the Biden administration is trying to build on the Trump-era Abraham Accords and looking beyond the Middle East to the largest country that doesn’t recognize Israel.

The world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia was one of the countries the Trump administration tried to bring into the Abraham Accords, though negotiations had stalled by the time Trump’s term concluded.

US and Israeli officials have discussed ways to expand the Abraham Accords in recent months, and Indonesia has come up in that context, Israeli officials told Axios.

Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Teuku Faizasyah, told Nikkei Asia on Sunday that the issue was raised during a meeting between Blinken and Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi.

According to Nikkei Asia, Faizasyah added that during the meeting, Marsudi “conveyed Indonesia’s consistent position toward Palestine that Indonesia will continue, with the Palestinian people, to fight for justice and independence.”

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla (credit: BEAWIHARTA BEAWIHARTA/ REUTERS)
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla (credit: BEAWIHARTA BEAWIHARTA/ REUTERS)

Ambassador Dennis Ross, distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that should Indonesia normalize “or even take a normalizing step like opening a commercial trade office with Israel, it would be a big deal. The world’s largest Muslim majority state normalizing relations with Israel, even as part of a process, would signal a much broader reconciliation between Muslims and the State of Israel. It would reflect a broader acceptance of Israel among those who historically had rejected it. It would make isolation of Israel that much more difficult.”

Finally, said Ross, it would be seen more generally as adding to the Abraham Accords, “sending the signal that Arabs and non-Arab Muslims see the benefits of a relationship with Israel and are not prepared to let Palestinian opposition deny them what is in their interests. It would also signal that building on the Abraham Accords was important to the Biden administration, reflecting its understanding that further advances would serve America’s broader interests regionally and internationally.

“What would Indonesia get from the United States for such outreach to Israel? The answer is most likely the promise of significant private and public sector investment. No doubt, if Indonesia were to take a normalizing step, it would reflect its expectation of economic gains – sending a message to others of the value of such ties.”

Robert Hefner, professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Affairs, said the question of whether Indonesia should establish diplomatic relations with Israel has been a topic of serious discussion in Indonesia for more than 20 years. 

“The late president Abdurrahman Wahid, a well-recognized Muslim intellectual and politician from the largest of the country’s Muslim social organizations [Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which has some 90 million followers], was the first to seriously broach the issue,” said Hefner. “However, the proposal proved controversial even among Wahid’s own followers, and in the face of overwhelming opposition from the broader Muslim community the initiative was halted.”

“NOTWITHSTANDING THIS setback, in the years since the Wahid administration, some in the Nahdlatul Ulama leadership have continued to visit or dialogue with officials in Israel,” Hefner continued. “Under the current president, Joko Widodo, no less a figure than Yahya Cholil Staquf, elected national chairperson of NU, has continued to broach the issue, both in presidential circles and with the broader public.”

Hefner said that this important wing of the NU leadership has made clear that it wants Indonesia to play a more assertive role among Muslim-majority countries, and as the most populous country in the Muslim world, it feels that Indonesia’s engagement with Israel could have a positive effect on the entire Middle East.

“Such an initiative has its political risks, however,” said Hefner. “Most surveys indicate that the majority of Muslim Indonesians oppose establishing relations with Israel, although outside of Indonesia’s small Islamist community, the issue is not a front-burner matter as it is in the Arab Middle East.

“The Indonesian leadership is certainly aware of the fact that normalizing relations with Israel might be welcomed in Washington. But this is not the primary concern driving the discussion. There is a sense in NU and among the country’s current leadership that on this and many other matters, it is time that Indonesia demonstrates leadership.”

Murray Hiebert, senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International relations, explained that Indonesia, as the world’s fourth-most populous nation, “has a fiercely independent foreign policy that seeks balance between the US and China, including during their current dispute.”

He noted that Indonesia’s positions are Palestinian, and that many Indonesians strongly protested in May during Operation Guardian of the Walls. 

“Jakarta has often said it won’t normalize relations until the Palestinian situation is resolved, but still Indonesia has maintained informal ties on trade and interfaith discussions,” said Hiebert.

Jeffrey Winters, professor of political science at Northwestern University and founder and chairman of the board of trustees of the Indonesian Scholarship and Research Support Foundation, said that Blinken’s suggestion to his Indonesian counterpart that her country should consider steps to normalize relations with Israel “has drawn a muted response in Indonesia. Conservative Islamic forces have been gaining influence and momentum in Indonesia for the past 25 years. Indonesia remains a secular state only because Islamic groups and parties are fragmented. If they were able to unify, Indonesia would likely become an Islamic state.”

Winters noted that Indonesia has an election slated for 2024, “and it is again shaping up as a battle between more secular nationalists against Islamic forces that have proposed replacing the country’s democracy with a caliphate. The political downside of such a diplomatic move is obvious, while the upside is much less clear. A major policy change on Israel would require extensive preparation and socialization at all levels of Indonesian society. The messaging and reframing of the issues involved would take years. Nothing resembling a national conversation on changing Indonesia-Israel relations has even started, much less matured.”