The recent violence between Israel and Palestine creates a challenge for Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei’s covert relationships with Tel Aviv.
By Umair Jamal
The recent phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is impacting ties between Southeast Asian Muslim nations and Israel.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei have united to condemn Israel’s offensive on Gaza, as attacks on the occupied Palestinian territory have resulted in the deaths of more than 240 people.
Though they don’t officially recognize Israel, Southeast Asia’s Muslim countries have covertly kept up trade and diplomatic ties with the country but the latest phase of violence may impact these relationships.
The violence in Israel and Palestine is the worst in years
The latest phase of the conflict began in mid-April after clashes erupted between Israeli security forces, Palestinians and ultra-nationalist Israelis in the Old City of Jerusalem and at Al-Aqsa mosque—one of the holiest sites in Islam. The eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem also continued and by mid-May, tensions had rapidly escalated into one of the worst rounds of violence between the two sides in the last few years.
Gaza, which is ruled by the militant group Hamas, launched thousands of rockets into Israel during the last two weeks of May. In response, Israeli security forces pounded many locations in Gaza, including residential buildings.
The Israeli airstrikes resulted in the deaths of at least 248 people, including 66 children. Hamas rocket attacks killed at least 12 people in Israel, including two children.
On May 21, Egypt brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian authorities after 11 days of deadly violence. The conflict has often played out across the international and the latest round of violence has drawn strong reactions from Muslim countries globally, including in Southeast Asia.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei jointly condemn Israel’s attacks
The Muslim majority countries of Southeast Asia have issued a rare joint statement condemning Israel’s attacks on Palestinian territories. In a statement on May 16, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the Sultan of Brunei termed Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza part of an “inhumane, colonial and apartheid” policy toward the people of Palestine.
“We condemn in the strongest term the repeated blatant violations and aggressions, carried out by the Israelis, targeting civilians throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly in East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, which has killed, injured and caused suffering to many, including women and children,” the statement said.
“We reiterate our solidarity with, and commitment to the Palestinian people, including their rights to self-determination, and the creation of an independent and sovereign State of Palestine,” it added.
The three Southeast Asian governments issued the statement after participating in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)’s emergency meeting on May 16. After the OIC meeting, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in a Twitter post that “We must act together now. Justice must prevail for the Palestinian people.”
To an extent, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei’s sharp response is driven by domestic political dynamics, as the Palestinian cause resonates strongly with powerful right wing Islamist constituencies.
Israel’s covert ties with Indonesia, Malaysia may be impacted
The violence between Palestine and Israel also makes it difficult for Southeast Asian Muslim nations to successfully keep their informal ties with Tel Aviv under wraps. Israel does not currently have official diplomatic ties with Indonesia, Malaysia or Brunei but the countries have long enjoyed thriving trade partnerships and political relationships with Tel Aviv.
Bilateral trade between Indonesia and Israel reached US$400-500 million in 2013. According to an Israeli official, the bilateral trade between the two countries reaches “hundreds of millions of dollars a year.” Malaysia also has a “booming but very discreet” trade and political relationship with Israel. According to some estimates, in 2016, Israel’s exports to Malaysia reached US$1.4 billion. The case is similar for Brunei, with trade continuing to flow and the two sides maintaining an informal diplomatic relationship.
However, the recent violence and attacks against Palestinians put new pressure on these ties. All three countries have rejected the idea of establishing ties with Israel unless the issue of Palestine is resolved. It is possible that Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei could use their trade ties with Israel to exert some pressure and push for more dialogue with Palestine, by threating to halt their economic exchanges. If violence breaks out again between Palestine and Israel anytime soon, the governments of Southeast Asia’s Muslim countries may see increased domestic pressure, forcing them to review their trade and political ties with Israel and take a more active stance in support of Palestine.