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Israel normalisation: Is Indonesia next?

The trend towards normalisation appeared to lose momentum at the end of Trump presidency but is a foreign policy priority for the Biden administration
Indonesian Muslims attend a rally to support Palestinians in Jakarta on 13 July 2014 (AFP)
Indonesian Muslims attend a rally in Jakarta to support the Palestinians, on 13 July 2014 (AFP)
By Randy Mulyanto in Jakarta

Indonesia is unlikely to normalise relations with Israel any time soon, given Jakarta's decades-old commitment to supporting the Palestinian cause and the risk of sparking anger in the island nation, even if Saudi Arabia follows through with the controversial plan.

The trend towards normalisation appeared to lose momentum at the end of the Trump presidency after Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan formally established relations with Israel.

But in recent weeks, reports of Saudi Arabia inching ever closer to establishing official relations with Israel have raised the question of who could follow next.

The possibility of an agreement arose in early May when the Biden administration's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, declared that Saudi-Israeli normalisation was in the US national interest.

And last Thursday, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman suggested in an interview that Saudi Arabia and Israel were set to reach a historic deal.

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"Every day we get closer," he told Fox News.

Still, experts and analysts told Middle East Eye that while ties would likely expand between the kingdom and Israel in the near future, Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, would buck the trend for now.

Bagus Hendraning Kobarsyih, the director of Middle Eastern affairs at the Indonesian foreign ministry, was emphatic on this issue, telling Middle East Eye that the country had "no intention" of establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. 

"We are not going to do that until Palestine gains its independence," he said. 

'The majority of the Indonesian Muslim community cannot accept the initiation of a diplomatic relationship with Israel'

- Siti Mutiah Setiawati, Gadjah Mada University

While US President Joe Biden has jettisoned most of his predecessor's Middle East policies, which favoured Israel, normalisation with Israel has not been among them.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and Indonesia during his December 2021 meeting with Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in Jakarta.

In the same month, Indonesia's foreign ministry spokesperson, Teuku Faizasyah, confirmed to Nikkei Asia that Blinken did so.

When asked to comment on the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties, Israel's deputy foreign ministry spokesperson, Yosef Zilberman, told MEE that "Israel extends a hand of peace and friendship to all the countries of the world, this also includes Indonesia."

A US State Department spokesperson told MEE that "as a general matter, we continue to support Israel's full integration in and beyond the region".

"We would refer you to the Indonesian and Israeli governments," the spokesperson said. "I have nothing to share of our private diplomatic conversations."

Indonesia's support for Palestine

Analysts told MEE that a major issue that could scupper any potential normalisation deal was pro-Palestinian sentiment, which runs deep across the island nation and dates back to when Indonesia's founding father Sukarno - who saw the archipelago ruled by the Dutch and Japanese throughout the first half of the 20th century - did not invite Israel to the first Asian-African Conference held in 1955, which discussed the Palestinian issue.

Indonesia also rejected Israeli participation at the fourth Asian Games held in Jakarta in 1962. 

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Siti Mutiah Setiawati, an international relations lecturer at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta on Indonesia's Java island, said the country supported the Palestinian cause because of its foreign policy principles.

"We - as a colonised country - empathise with the Palestinian nation," Setiawati told MEE.

"The majority of the Indonesian Muslim community cannot accept the initiation of a diplomatic relationship with Israel," she said, bringing up the principle of "ukhuwah islamiyah" - or the "Islamic fraternity" - as a primary reason.

"There is an Islamic solidarity that must be accommodated by the state because the majority [thinks] that way," she said, referring to Indonesia's population of whom almost 90 percent are Muslim. 

Such views have come to represent a large segment of the population, with many Indonesians outright refusing the possibility of normalisation.

"With their right-wing government, constant encroachment of the illegal settlers, continued attack on the West Bank, continued provocations in the Al Aqsa Mosque, ongoing blockade in Gaza, it's just impossible to justify any diplomatic relations between our government and the current Israeli administration," Fitrian Zamzami, who lives in Depok, near Jakarta, told MEE.

"Any fatwa issued by the ulama of the Kingdom of Saudi [Arabia], for example, has no weight at all if we as individuals feel deeply in our hearts that it contradicts the teaching of the Prophet," he added, referring to whether Saudi Arabia's clerics support the formal establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.

Aknolt Kristian Pakpahan, an international relations lecturer at Parahyangan Catholic University (UNPAR) in Bandung, Indonesia's West Java province, agreed, saying that "as a middle power country, Indonesia's position is very strategic to provide support to Palestine".

"Indonesia itself is currently also starting to position itself as a new influential country in the international world," he said, referring to - among them - the country being last year's host of the G20 summit in Bali.

The public view: what comes next?

Aside from the Indonesian government's long-standing support of the Palestinian people, many Indonesians also hold negative views of Israel.

Mumtaza Tjatradiningrat, who lives in Jakarta, said she was "very much against" the idea of normalisation.

"How can we as Indonesians support a relationship with a country that has clearly committed crimes against humanity at the level of illegal occupation, colonialism and apartheid?" she told MEE.

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According to a May 2022 national survey by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting, 69 percent of Indonesians disliked Israel - with only 20 percent having a favourable impression of the country. 

Anti-Israel sentiment runs so deep that earlier this year the governing body of world football, Fifa, stripped Indonesia from being the host of the 2023 Under-20 World Cup after some politicians and citizens opposed Israel's participation. 

Monique Rijkers, the founder of the Hadassah nonprofit organisation, said it was "time for Indonesia to join the Abraham Accords".

"Indonesia must focus on welfare for Indonesia itself, and to resolve the Palestinian issue, Indonesia must have diplomatic relations," she told MEE. "Indonesia cannot do anything from afar."

"Indonesia needs Israeli technology and innovation in the fields of cyber, defence, health, green energy, water management, agriculture and telecommunications," she added.

While Indonesia publicly denies plans to establish ties with Israel, according to statistics published by the trade ministry, Indonesia exported $185.2m worth of non-oil and gas to Israel in 2022, while it imported $47.8m worth of goods from Israel that year. 

The trade volume between the two countries exceeded $100m yearly from 2018 to 2022.  

Pakpahan, the Unpar lecturer, said: "Indonesia still has non-diplomatic relations with Israel and is not completely closed off from having relations with Israel.

"There are things that could be learned with Israel outside the context of diplomatic relations - for example, the transfer of knowledge.

"In an era of scientific development and increasing international trade activity, it seems Indonesia could maintain non-diplomatic relations with Israel."

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