Indonesia-Israel relations: A curious dilemma

Abdurrahman Wahid (right), popularly known as Gus Dur: a surprising progenitor of Indonesia-Israel relations.
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By Michel Struharova

Although Indonesia has long asserted its support for the recognition of Palestinian statehood, its business ties with Israel have been developing for a long time, out of the public eye.

The nation with the world’s largest Muslim population keeps an intensive business interaction with Israel, although the two countries maintain no diplomatic relations.

The volume of trade between Indonesia and Israel has reached somewhere between US$400 million to US$500 million. Almost 80% of the total volume consists of Indonesian export, mostly commodities. On the other hand, Israel exports high-tech products.

The development of Indonesian-Israeli relations is no recent thing. When Suharto came to power, the pro-Arab, anti-colonialist zeal of the Sukarno era switched to a more moderate rhetoric. Subsequently, growing relations between the two countries culminated in a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Suharto in Jakarta, in 1993.

The most significant development in relations between the two countries took place largely to the credit of Abdurrahman Wahid, the man popularly known as Gus Dur, and who later became the president of Indonesia. In 1994, Wahid’s acceptance of the invitation to Jerusalem to witness the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, in his position as the leader of the major Islamic movement in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), was highly symbolic in the development of mutual relations.

His rapprochement towards Israel was a bold move, and it paid off. Not even critics of Islamist organisations prevented him from visiting Israel again in 1997.

That paved the way for Israeli-Indonesia cooperation, short of outright diplomatic mutual recognition. In 2008, a collaboration agreement on medical services between Israeli and Indonesian national authorities on emergency services was signed. The main aim was to share knowledge in medical services and planning work protocols for Indonesia’s health care system.

A year later, the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce was established, as a subsidiary of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce, with the aim to facilitate the flow of the goods by providing consultancy services.

The bugbear over Ramallah

In 2012, the opening of an Indonesian consulate in Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority was agreed up, and to be headed by an ambassador-ranked Indonesian diplomat. It was a step towards upgrading relations between Indonesia and Israel.

“In fact, however, while the ambassador-ranked diplomat will be accredited to the Palestinian Authority, a significant portion of his work will be in dealings with Israel, and the office will fulfill substantial diplomatic duties as well as consular responsibilities,” the Times of Israel quoted a source involved in the process.

A month later, Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that Indonesia had frozen the plans to open the consulate in Ramallah. This announcement came after Israel denied Mr Natalegawa and other foreign ministers entry to the West Bank, to attend a meeting held in Ramallah to show the support to the Palestinian Authority.

Earlier this March again, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was denied permission to enter Ramallah to oversee the inauguration of the Indonesian honorary consulate. The meeting was then moved to Amman, Jordan. Marsudi and her delegation were slated to meet the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister, Riyad al-Maliki, because she reportedly infringed the secret pact established with Israel.

“It was a general understanding regarding any visit to Israel. Visits to the Palestinian Authority are made under the terms of reciprocity – a visit to Jerusalem, and a visit to Ramallah,” the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely explained to Haaretz.

The incident happened only a week after Jakarta has held the 5th Extraordinary Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Leaders at the summit discussed strategies and approaches in the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the possibility of boycotting Israeli products made in the West Bank.

Are official Indonesia-Israel relations ever a possibility?

Nevertheless, latest developments suggest that there is increasing effort on the part of Israel, conscious perhaps of not sinking into international isolation, to establish stronger ties with Asian countries. At the meeting with visiting delegation of Indonesian journalists, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his hopes of establishing official diplomatic relations with Indonesia.

However, the Indonesian government rebuffed Mr Netanyahu’s overtures, instead emphasizing its support of Palestinian independence.

In the ensuing years, diplomatic relations between the two countries will remain unchanged unless there are positive developments in the peace negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

According to a 2014 BBC country rating poll, 75% of Indonesian respondents perceived Israel negatively. Information about the thriving business relations between the two countries would thus have to be treated with a particular care by the Indonesian government, lest it risks a political backlash.