Rumors of a normalization of diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Israel resurfaced again recently when The Jerusalem Post published a report of a secret visit of an Indonesian delegation to Israel. The report seems to suggest that a normalization between the two countries is underway.
In fact, this is not the first time such narrative emerged.
In January 2022, the then Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid raised the issue publicly by asserting that Israel was looking to “expand the Abraham Accords to additional countries.” He added, “If you’re asking me what the important countries that we’re looking at are, Indonesia is one of them, Saudi Arabia of course, but these things take time.”
The United States has also tried to facilitate this normalization. During a visit to Jakarta in 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken brought up the subject, though the proposal was ultimately declined by Indonesia.
Though the narrative of normalization has circulated widely in the media, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs affirmed that such is merely a media framing to advance Israel’s interest.
The signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, which formalized normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries, may have inspired speculation that Indonesia would follow suit. However, some contrarian factors are must be considered.
Normalization Attempts in the Past
High-ranking Israeli officials have made several attempts to open up relations with Indonesia over the years. For example, in 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s meeting with President Soeharto coincided with Indonesia’s chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Prime Minister Rabin took this opportunity to seek support for the peace process in the Middle East as well as promote potential opportunities for cooperation between the two countries.
Even then, Indonesia firmly refused to establish more diplomatic relations with Israel. This was openly conveyed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia at that time, Moerdiono, who stated that he would not consider the offer.
However, Indonesia backtracked in 1999 as it considered to open economic and trade relations with Israel. This was motivated by Indonesia’s commitment to promote peace in the Middle East, to showcase Indonesia’s new identity as a democratic and pluralist nation, and as part of efforts to rehabilitate the post-1997 domestic economy.
The plan was widely criticized and considered detrimental to Palestine’s cause, because indirectly establishing cooperation with Israel would further weaken support for Palestinian independence. Chief among the detractors are the Muslim community, particularly Islamic groups, students and members of the House of Representatives.
Nevertheless, efforts to push for a normalization remains until today. A few months after the Abraham Accords were signed, former US President Donald Trump promised financial incentives to Indonesia, should it decide to normalize relations with Israel.
Indonesia’s Constitution as a Safeguard
Despite the dramatic implications of the World War II on world politics, it has not changed Indonesia’s position on the Palestinian issue. This is rooted in the Preamble to the 1945 Constitution, whereby Indonesia believes that “freedom is the right of every nation” and opposes “colonialism in this world”. Such tenets will continue to be the basis for Indonesia’s support to the Palestinian cause.
The Indonesian government also regularly invokes this preamble in declaring its position regarding the Palestinian issue and Israel’s ongoing oppressive occupation of Palestine. The implication is that Indonesia does not officially acknowledge Israel’s existence as a legitimate, sovereign state. Therefore, any step towards normalization would be a serious contradiction and violation of its Constitution, which may serve as a basis for political and constitutional crises in the country.
Supporting Palestine in Global Fora
On various occasions, Indonesia has always shown its full support for Palestine and strongly criticized Israel’s actions. This was exemplified in 1962 during its hosting of the Asian Games, when the Indonesian government refused to issue visas for Israeli athletes to compete in the prestigious sports event. This measure was also a form of solidarity with the Arab countries that wanted to isolate Israel internationally at that time.
Indonesia is also Palestine’s champion in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an organization with more than 50 member countries whose populations are predominantly Muslims. In the 2017 OIC Summit, Indonesia again urged OIC member states to reconsider their normalization policies with Israel and must consider Palestinian independence. However, the forum seems insufficient and not consistent enough to continue to fight for Palestinian independence. The choice of several OIC member countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel is considered betrayal of the ideals of the OIC and thus generated strong criticism.
Along with the escalation of the conflict in the Gaza strip in 2021, it has prompted Indonesia to lead the OIC in condemning Israel’s actions, which claimed to launch those attacks in self-defense.
Thus, to normalize relations with Israel now is tantamount to betraying decades of policy pronouncement and political position on the issue of Palestine. If this happens, Indonesia’s credibility would be severely tarnished domestically and internationally.
Such might also damage Indonesia’s relationship with fellow Muslim countries, such as Malaysia, Turkey and Qatar, strong supporters of the Palestinian cause. To even think of normalizing, Indonesia must undertake a cost-benefit analysis as to how it would impact its relations with other countries.
Furthermore, Israel confers no geostrategic importance to Indonesia. Economically, Indonesia is very close to China, its biggest trading partner, while Indonesia’s chief partner in security cooperation is the United States. There is no strategic interest to cooperate with Israel now, but such is probably the result of decades of fundamental opposition to Israel’s existence that inhibits any analytical discussion in that direction to take place.
Opposition from Inside
There is no denying the power of Muslim voice in Indonesia. Indonesia is predominantly Muslim and home to some of the biggest Muslim organizations in the world, including Muhammadiyah, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) and others. This of course has a big impact and an important influence on the formulation of Indonesia’s foreign policy towards the Middle East. Ignoring the views of the Muslims and these mass organizations could trigger a strong reaction against the government.
The government’s cautious step was shown in its response to Yahya Cholil Staquf’s, who is now Chairman of NU, visit to Israel in 2018. Staquf went to give lecture in an event held by American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum in Jerusalem. Responding to the visit, the government stated that his visit was not part of the Indonesian diplomacy. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo further asserted that Indonesia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel and supports Palestinian independence. The step was taken to seemingly avoid backlash from Muslim organizations and the public.
In addition, there is also the potential to inflame the extremist groups, forcing them to rise up against the government if they see its actions, such as pursuing a normalization, as undermining Islamic teachings and the struggles of the Palestinians.
The influence of the Muslim voice, mass organizations and the potential backlash from the extremist groups are important factors to consider if Indonesia were to formalize relations with Israel. An example of the strength of these factors is Aksi 212 in 2016, a massive response against the blasphemy case of then Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.
Linked to this is the electoral politics. A normalization could easily become a political suicide for whoever is helming the government at the time, whether President Jokowi today or anyone who would succeed him. A normalization is a nonstarter amidst the possibility of massive domestic opposition and the population would simply vote him or her out of office.
It will be difficult for the Indonesian government to persuade the Indonesian public that a normalization could contribute towards facilitate peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Palestinian plight remains in place even after Israel’s normalization with Egypt in 1979 and the Abraham Accords in 2020.
Israel’s efforts to seek support from Indonesia would certainly encounter a huge stumbling rock. Any Indonesian president in the near future is unlikely to shift the country’s position on this issue, considering the how much Israel is viewed as a deal-breaker by large numbers of voters.
Indonesia is much more likely to hold informal engagements with Israel. Although Indonesia denied The Jerusalem’s Post report, in July 2022 Israeli delegation visited Jakarta to explore potential cooperation in investment, start-up ventures and social impact initiatives. Such may likely continue to be the norm of Indonesia’s engagement with Israel, despite public denouncement of Israel by Indonesian government and media.
Meanwhile, Indonesia is likely to continue publicly showing its pro-Palestinian stance and cooperating with Palestine. In fact, in October last year, President Jokowi received an official visit from Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad I.M. Shtayyeh at the Bogor Presidential Palace. In his statement, President Jokowi emphaszied Indonesia’s commitment to continuing to support the Palestinian independence. During the meeting, Kamar Dagang dan Industri Indonesia (Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – KADIN) also discussed various opportunities and prospects for the trade relations between the two countries.
By taking into account domestic and international factors, it appears that any push for a normalization in Indonesia-Israel ties would be incredibly difficult. The Indonesian government, rightfully, appears to understand that it has more to lose if it were to pursue this policy option.