‘Welcome to Jakarta!” said the taxi driver with an embarrassed laugh as he threw his hands up in the air in exasperation in response to the gridlocked traffic.
It was typically hot and humid and I was running 20 minutes late for my next meeting, but it’s all par for the course in this mega city of over 10 million people, where the average resident commutes between four to six hours a day.
I was in Indonesia to lead a unique delegation of Israelis in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country: alumni and advisers of our Israel-Indonesia Futures program.
This was the second year that we had run this program with this Southeast Asian giant – despite the lack of diplomatic ties with Israel. The program had been borne out of COVID, when all of the Israel-Asia Center’s leadership programs had to be put on hold.
It was 2020, in the wake of the pandemic and following the Abraham Accords. Like everyone, I was sitting at home in lockdown and realized that we were being given an opportunity to rethink the global landscape, how we work and how we work together.
For the first time, it seemed the ideal time to bring people together from the Start-Up Nation and Southeast Asia’s largest economy: circumventing the logistical difficulties of meeting in person, through cyberspace.
Over three months, from January to March, Israeli and Indonesian emerging and established leaders have been working together over Zoom – learning about each others’ countries, economies, challenges and opportunities for investment and partnership-building – through seminars and workshops.
At the same time, they had also been collaborating in binational teams to develop sustainable solutions to this year’s featured challenge, set by our Indonesian partner: To create a digital solution to enable impact entrepreneurs across Indonesia – no matter where they are – to access entrepreneurship training, mentoring and other business development services.
Throughout the process, Israeli and Indonesian mentors guided the teams.
Close to 100 Israelis and Indonesians are now involved in each annual program, including program participants, mentors, speakers, facilitators, judges, as well as program advisers and program partners.
This growing community of business and innovation bridge-builders between the two countries has been jostling with solutions to challenges in education, healthcare, food security and start-up ecosystem development; pounding out ideas; presenting their own ventures to others in the network, and pursuing deals. And for the second year in a row, this had all taken place online.
This may not appear so unusual. But these are two countries that have no diplomatic ties. For most participants, this was their first encounter with a person from the other country.
The now-annual program is paving the way to the normalization of economic relations between the two countries, and is already generating partnerships, investment and market opportunities.
Meeting in person
THAT IS why after two years of working online, I decided that it was about time we met in person. The five-day, program-packed agenda afforded the Israeli alumni to experience Indonesia first-hand, gain a feeling for the energy driving this southeast Asian giant, acquire insights into specific sectors, and expand and solidify existing connections.
One of the trip’s key themes was social impact and investment, aligning with the focus on the Israel-Asia Center’s 2022 Israel-Indonesia Futures program.
While in Jakarta, the Israeli delegates – all of whom traveled on non-Israeli passports – met Indonesian business leaders, university presidents, entrepreneurs and investors. We also visited start-up hubs and accelerators in the city. In addition, we toured cultural and historical sites in Jakarta, including a visit to one of its kampung (slums).
In villages outside the city of Bogor, south of Jakarta, we witnessed impact investment at a grassroots level through a day trip organized by a social impact venture that has given micro-loans and financial training to more than one million rural women micro-entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, in Jakarta, the Israel-Asia Center hosted a rooftop cocktail reception for the Israel-Indonesia Futures community, as well as the Center’s wider Indonesia network of investors, tech founders, heads of start-up hubs, TV celebrities and policy advisers.
This was the first time that most of us had met in person after months – and in some cases, years – of working together entirely online, and the energy was simply electric! Everyone was so excited to be meeting finally in person.
Currently, the 2022 host of the G20, Indonesia is projected to become the world’s fifth largest economy by 2030. This growth is not surprising when you look at the figures. With a population of 275 million spread across 17,500 islands, Indonesia ranks as the fourth-largest country in the world – and the world’s third-largest democracy.
Indonesia has 202 million Internet users and an Internet economy growth rate of 49% per year – projected to reach $330 billion by 2030. The country also has the world’s fastest-growing smartphone adoption rate, estimated to reach 239 million users by 2026.
Despite the lack of diplomatic ties with Israel, there is currently about $500 million of direct and indirect annual bilateral trade between the two countries (not including defense). But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Tremendous untapped potential exists between Israel and Indonesia in sectors such as education, healthcare, agtech, foodtech, water technology, fintech, cybersecurity and mobility, to name just a few.
However, this economic giant is still being largely overlooked by Israelis. In all of our meetings that week, responses from our Indonesian counterparts were warm, welcoming, overwhelmingly positive and inspiring – and opened our eyes to the future we can build between our two nations.
What’s more, they are eager to visit Israel and take these relationships to the next level.
Diplomatic ties, if and when they eventually happen, won’t take place overnight and shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as the only option for Israel. Unlike the UAE and Bahrain, Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy. Any normalization with Israel would likely follow formal ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, in the case of Indonesia, it would be a gradual process. Israel should be open to other arrangements that could look similar to what we have with Taiwan: an economic and cultural representative office in each country, rather than high-profile diplomatic ties.
Whatever that future looks like, so much is possible in the interim. And as ties do warm up gradually, existing barriers will be removed. Israel has a unique opportunity to start preparing for that moment.
Ultimately, this is all about people-to-people relationship-building. The Israel-Asia Center is paving the way for that, and we are seeking partners who wish to work with us in growing these relationships and investing in the human capital that is bringing these two countries together in a way that’s making the world better for everyone.
The writer is the founder and executive director of the Israel-Asia Center, an Israeli not-for-profit organization dedicated to informing, empowering and connecting the Israel-Asia leaders of tomorrow toward building a more sustainable future in the “Asian Century.”