Last week, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison floated potentially moving Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Unsurprisingly, the Indonesian government expressed its strong opposition to the proposal. Successive Indonesian governments, including current Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration, have pursued a foreign policy premised upon solidarity with Palestinians. Subsequently, if Australia does move its embassy to Jerusalem, its crisis-prone relationship with neighboring Indonesia will become strained.
Since Indonesia formally obtained independence in 1949, Indonesian governments have advocated in favor of Palestinian statehood and the rights of Palestinians. Not only is Indonesia a Muslim majority state, but many citizens of Indonesia, a country that experienced Dutch colonialism, view Israeli rule over Palestinians as constituting colonialism.
Thus Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, stated in 1962 that “as long as Palestine does not gain its independence, Indonesia will keep challenging the Israeli occupation.” During his presidency, Sukarno refused to develop formal diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Israel due to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians and Sukarno’s general opposition toward colonialism (and yet, during Sukarno’s tenure, Indonesia invaded and colonized the province of West Papua). To this day, Indonesia and Israel do not have formal diplomatic relations, although some trade and travel occurs between the countries.
More recently, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), who served as Indonesia’s president from 2004-14, also demonstrated strong support for Palestinian independence via rhetoric and actions undertaken by Indonesia at the United Nations. In 2011, unlike Australia, Indonesia voted in favor of admitting Palestine as a member of the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. One year later, again in contrast to Australia, Indonesia voted in favor of granting Palestine non-Member Observer State status in the UN, a position that enables Palestine to participate in UN General Assembly (UNGA) debates. These UN votes thus demonstrate Australia and Indonesia’s different approaches toward the Israel-Palestine conflict. During the Yudhoyono administration, SBY and his foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, repeatedly advocated in favor of Palestinian independence and, in 2012, Natalegawa publicly condemned “the denial of their [Palestinians’] basic human rights and fundamental freedoms [by Israel].”
Jokowi’s government has also demonstrated its support for Palestinians at the UN. In June 2018, Indonesia supported a UNGA resolution condemning Israeli forces’ indiscriminate and excessive use of force against Palestinian civilians protesting in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip in 2018, which resulted in the deaths of over 100 Palestinians. Early this month, Indonesia voted with the majority of states at the UN in favor of Palestine chairing the G77 bloc at the UN, which contains over 130 states, while Australia was one of three states to oppose the vote.
Like her predecessor, Indonesia’s current foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, has publicly chided Israel. In response to Israel’s aforementioned heavy use of force against Palestinian civilians in 2018, Marsudi stated that Palestine “continues to experience acts of impunity by Israel as the occupying power” in a reference to the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, which Israel has controlled since the end of the 1967 Six Day War.
Given this history, it was no surprise that Jokowi strongly condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision in 2017 to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The city of Jerusalem is a holy site for both Muslims and Jews that is claimed by Palestinians and Israelis. Significantly, Jokowi also summoned the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia in response to Trump’s actions. Furthermore, the Indonesian government supported thousands of Indonesians who protested in Jakarta in opposition to Trump’s announcements.
Thus, Morrison’s statement last week that he was “open to” the “sensible proposal” of moving Australia’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was criticized by the Indonesian government. The proposal was in part floated in an attempt to boost the Liberal Party’s vote in last week’s by-election in the seat of Wentworth, a traditionally Liberal Party seat with a large Jewish population, which had provided the government with a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Australian Parliament (as of this writing, counting was still underway, but the independent candidate was ahead of the Liberal Party’s). The proposal to move Australia’s embassy to Jerusalem has previously been advocated by former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott and in a non-binding motion by the Liberal Party Federal Council in 2018, although Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, stated that he would not move the embassy.
In response to the proposal, which unfortunately coincided with Marsudi hosting the Palestinian foreign minister, Riyad al-Maliki, Marsudi summoned Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Gary Quinlan. The Indonesian government’s deep hostility to the Morrison government’s proposal is exemplified by the fact that Marsudi tweeted an image of her meeting with the ambassador, noting that she “conveyed Indonesia’s strong concern as well as questions [sic] the merit of Australia’s announcement on the issue of Palestine” to the ambassador. Marsudi also publicly stated that Australia moving its embassy may undermine global security and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Lamentably, this is far from the first time that Australia-Indonesia relations have been strained. In the past, tensions have arisen over many issues, notably Australia’s support for East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, Australia temporarily banning live animal exports to Indonesia in response to animal cruelty in 2011, the execution of Australian drug traffickers in Indonesia in 2015, and the perennial issue of West Papua, a restive Indonesian province where a separatist movement exists. In 2006, Indonesia temporarily recalled its ambassador in response to Australia granting asylum to 43 pro-independence Papuans who arrived in Australia seeking asylum on the grounds of persecution by the Indonesian government. Moreover, in 2013, Jakarta temporarily recalled its ambassador after it was exposed that Australian intelligence attempted to spy on SBY and his wife.
Thus, if Australia does move its embassy to Jerusalem, policy over the Israel-Palestine conflict would be added to the long list of sore points in the Australia-Indonesia relationship. Moreover, given the fact that Australia has considerably less international clout than the United States, it is highly likely that Indonesia would respond more vigorously to Australia moving its embassy than it did to the Trump administration’s move.
The Jokowi government will continue to pursue a pro-Palestinian foreign policy and has signaled that it will prioritize Palestinian statehood during Indonesia’s one-year non-permanent term on the UN Security Council, which commences in 2019.
Jokowi’s new vice presidential running mate for the upcoming 2019 elections, Ma’ruf Amin, a conservative Muslim cleric, advocated in 2017 that Indonesians boycott American and Israeli products if the United States retained its embassy in Jerusalem. Subsequently, if Jokowi wins the 2019 elections, he may harden his policy toward Israel and augment his support for Palestinians to appease his running mate.
Even if Jokowi is defeated in the 2019 election, which currently appears unlikely, his successor will likely maintain Indonesia’s limited relationship with Israel and continue Indonesia’s pro-Palestinian foreign policy.
The Australian election is due in 2019, and, Australia’s other major party, the Labor Party, has expressed its opposition to moving Australia’s embassy to Jerusalem. Despite the Liberal Party looking likely to lose the Wentworth by-election, future Liberal Party policy regarding this issue is currently unclear and will not be finalized by Morrison until the end of this year.
Olivia Tasevski is an International Relations and History tutor at the University of Melbourne, where she completed her Bachelor of Arts (Honors) and Master of International Relations. She specializes in human rights issues in Indonesia, Australia-Indonesia relations and the history of U.S. foreign relations.