Indonesia is no saviour: against normalisation with Israel

Recent reports of potential normalisation between Indonesia and Israel have received varied reactions in the respective countries. In his three-month marathon toward normalization, U.S. President Donald Trump has persuaded four Arab countries to open diplomatic relations with Israel. With his term set to end in a matter of days, Trump carries on in a full sprint to rack up even more. Oman and Indonesia, said an Israeli source, are predicted to be the next targets.

In his latest book, The Hundred Years War on Palestine, historian Rashid Khalidi writes that Israel’s “most vital asset” is its reputation abroad. Since its founding, Israel has struggled to protect its image and stature in the face of delegitimization by Arab and Muslim countries. For the regionally isolated Jewish state, for whom the question of legitimacy is of existential importance, normalisation is understandably a top foreign policy priority.

While news surrounding normalisation has acquired a banality due to frequent media coverage, the significance of an official Indonesian thawing of ties to Israel should not be underestimated. Previous deals for the normalisation of ties to Israel by other sovereign states were made by monarchs and dictators. These decisions were grossly unrepresentative of the opinions of their people, an overwhelming majority of whom disapprove of such a normalization. When viewed through an Israeli lens, normalisation with Indonesia—a thriving Muslim democracy—could be seen as its first success in winning the hearts and minds of both the public and leadership of a previously antagonistic nation.

Surprising but not unforeseeable

The Indonesian government was quick to refute the alleged opening. The Foreign Ministry denied any talks had taken place with Israel, while affirming Indonesia’s unwavering support for Palestinian independence — a position which was later reiterated by Speaker of Parliament Puan Maharani.

While the suddenness of the news may come as a shock, it is by no means unforeseeable.

In late November, Indonesia decided to reinstate calling visas for citizens of Israel and seven other countries. This action was criticized by some Indonesian MPs, as potential soft diplomacy to ease and cushion an eventual normalisation of ties. Curiously, the decision came several weeks after U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo’s first official visit to Indonesia. Pompeo has been a key figure in the normalisation marathon, well known for his shuttle diplomacy between the U.S. and the Middle East for that purpose.

Compared to Malaysia and Brunei, Indonesia seems to have a more welcoming climate to open relations with Israel. While normalisation only enjoys minute support today, Israel and its lobby groups have successfully reached out to these marginal voices.

Social media has proven very effective as a point of contact. “Israel Berbahasa Indonesia”, a Facebook page managed by the Israeli government, has achieved more than 280,000 followers. The page, self-declared as “educational” in its mission, shares select pieces of news that counter the mainstream anti-Israeli narrative in Indonesia. The human-to-human track is exemplified by the social media strategy of influencer Hananya Naftali, a member of Israeli PM’s outreach team. Naftali regularly sends heart-felt messages to Indonesians on their day of independence. In a recent tweet he shared a picture six hijabi students whose entangled bodies form the Star of David. “We were not meant to be enemies”, he wrote.

Israel has also sponsored programs and gatherings specifically designed to amplify the impact of its cultural diplomacy.

Early next year the Israel Asia Centre will inaugurate the “Israel-Indonesia Futures” program where entrepreneurs and professionals are trained to strengthen ties between the two countries. The organizing team boasted securing at least 200 million USD in investment to the Israeli economy by the alumni of its previous programs. While the annual visit by Indonesian pilgrims to Israel is well documented, lesser known are the organized educational tours funded by pro-Israel groups for Indonesians who demonstrate sound capacity as cultural bridges between the two nations. My correspondence with one participant shows the meticulousness with which the itinerary of these tours is crafted. Locations visited include the West Bank settlements and the disputed Golan Heights—places ordinary tourists cannot easily access.

For some Indonesians, whose state-imposed restrictions from interacting with Israelis has ironically bred curiosity to see the other side, “visit us and you’ll understand us” has become an almost irresistible mantra. Although largely unnoticed, pro-Israel sympathy is becoming less a taboo for certain circles in Indonesia. To those who closely follow this trajectory, news on normalization, while sudden, is not surprising.

Material benefit, symbolic loss

Arab countries who have normalized ties with Israel have been promised specific benefits from the US. Most notoriously in the Moroccan case, the normalisation of ties was conditioned upon American recognition of the kingdom’s sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara. In a future Indonesian scenario, similar quid pro quo arrangements are possibly in order. One senior U.S. official recently disclosed the possibility of Indonesia receiving billions of dollars in American aid as a reward of normalisation of ties.

Few disciples of realpolitik would dispute the merits of relations with Israel. Normalisation advocacy often highlight the benefit Indonesia may reap from Israel’s cutting-edge technology, particularly in the agriculture and health sector. Moreover, with open relations Indonesia would no longer depend on third parties to purchase military equipment from Israel—like its past procurement of Israeli Skyhawks in the 1980s. In the current pandemic, the interest in Israel’s world-class vaccine research is becoming ever apparent.

This rationalization is certainly true insofar as material benefit is concerned. An ideological reading of the situation, however, projects a more sinister scenario.

Indonesia’s national prestige historically stems from its spearheading role in the Third World anti-colonial struggle. As the only nation in attendance at the 1955 Bandung Conference  yet to gain independence, it is almost expected that Palestine captures the current focus of Indonesia’s anti-colonial mission. Just several years ago, in the sixtieth commemoration of the conference, President Joko Widodo urged the world “not to turn their back on Palestinian suffering”. In the mainstream Palestinian parlance, normalisation is spoken of as exactly that: a stab in the back. The reputational toll to Indonesia for being perceived as a hypocrite who abandons the Palestinian cause is tremendous.

Even during the Suharto era, the heyday of covert cooperation with Israel, Indonesia did not go to the extent of normalisation. If in the oppressive New Order—when controversial policy could be pursued with fewer political cost—Israeli material incentives did not allure Indonesia to forego its special commitment for Palestine, assuming that the same reasoning could work today is a naiveté.

“Saviour complex”: normalizing to help Palestinians

The Indonesian non-recognition of Israel primarily stems from the symbolic importance (nationalist and religious) of solidarity with the Palestinians. Lip-service to this symbolic aspect, at the least, is a must for pro-normalisation arguments to gain traction. Relying on material grounds alone will not succeed.

The late-president Abdurrahman Wahid once made an intriguing argument: if Indonesia, whose state-ideology abhors atheism, has relations with Communist China why not with God-believing Israel? Indonesia, Wahid argued further, could never play a meaningful role in brokering peace by only talking to one side and avoiding the other.

The echo of this Gusdurian legacy still resonates with many Indonesian Muslims today, particularly among the Nahdliyin. The controversial 2017 visit to Israel by Yahya Cholil Staquf, the General Secretary of NU, was hailed by his supporters as the continuation of Wahid’s inter-civilizational mission. Staquf sought to convey the message of Islam as rahmah (universal compassion) to Israelis, hoping it would persuade them to the path of peace.

For Indonesians who have witnessed decades of hostility that have brought the Palestinians nowhere, reaching to the other side—even with the slightest chance to achieve peace—seems like a reasonable step to take. Normalisation, in this line of thinking, constitutes a strategic move to increase Indonesia’s leverage such that its concern on the Palestinian question is solemnly heard by Israel. Or does it?

In my estimation, this gesture of benevolence might unfortunately be misplaced. Beyond simply a matter of future statehood, supporting the Palestinian right of self-determination should mean an acknowledgement that they are best placed to shape their future. Indonesia is an ally to the Palestinians; it is neither their saviour nor it should pretend to be one. What good is the helper, if its help is not sought by the helped?

If anything unites the different Palestinian factions, it is their resistance against the normalisation trend. Both the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas have appealed directly to the Indonesian president, alerting him of the trend’s detriments. Palestine even left its chairmanship in the Arab League precisely due to the organization’s failure to condemn normalisation. There are no grounds to claim that Palestinians would feel helped by Indonesia opening up to Israel. If anything, it would seriously demoralise them.

One must remember that the Israel of Gusdur’s time is different from today. Israel’s Overton window has shifted so much to the right, that the leftist peace camp has become a virtually irrelevant player. Today, political centrism in Israel still means retention of illegal settlements and ambivalence to Palestinian statehood. Many in the Israeli leadership have now spoken of containing the conflict, rather than resolving it.

A garrison state in the region, Israel prizes recognition as an insurance policy in the context of its existential insecurity. For such a treasured bargaining chip, normalisation should not be given away for facile promises and mere material incentives. Indonesia must remain steadfast to its two-state commitment and quell the normalisation trend. Peace and justice should come before recognition, not the reverse.

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