ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Why Indonesia Won’t Recognize Israel — At Least For Now

Domestic political factors make it much harder for Indonesia to follow in the footsteps of Arab states like Morocco and Sudan.

Why Indonesia Won’t Recognize Israel — At Least For Now
Credit: Flickr/jasonwain

Last month, reports emerged that the Trump administration was willing to offer Indonesia a hefty financial inducement in exchange for formally recognizing the nation of Israel.

In an interview with Bloomberg published on December 22, Adam Boehler, CEO of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, said that Indonesia could get up to $2 billion more in development aid if it formalized the already considerable ties it has with Tel Aviv.

“We’re talking to them about it,” Boehler said. “If they’re ready, they’re ready, and if they are then we’ll be happy to even support more financially than what we do.”

Like many of the world’s Muslim-majority states, and much of the Middle East, Indonesia has never had diplomatic ties with Israel, owing to the nation’s long opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

But over the past six months, the Trump administration has embarked a push to have Arab and Muslim countries openly recognize Israel, and has so far succeeded in convincing the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan to do so.

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Each recognition has been purchased by significant material inducement: the UAE has been promised a fleet of stealth fighter jets  and Morocco gained long-sought formal U.S. recognition of its occupation of Western Sahara. Meanwhile, Sudan was removed from the U.S. list of state supporters of terrorism.

Boehler’s suggestion came a week after reports in the Israeli press that Indonesia, along with Oman, were the next likely nations to recognize the Israeli government – reopening a question that has existed for as long as Israel and Indonesia have been independent nations.

The Indonesian government quickly moved to deny the reports. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi asserted that Indonesia had “no intention to open diplomatic ties with Israel,” adding, “Indonesia will continue to exercise support for Palestinian independence based on the two-state solution and other agreed international parameters.”

This position is also backed by Islamic organizations spanning the Indonesian political spectrum, who have long protested Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories and frequently solicit donations for Palestinian causes.

In 2018, thousands of protesters flooded central Jakarta to protest President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Speaking in opposition to recognizing the Israeli state, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the highest clerical body in the nation, stated recently that Indonesia “must remain consistent in its identity as a nation that rejects colonizers.”

This strident public opposition ensures that any move by the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to recognize Israel would bear a heavy domestic political cost.

This is especially the case at present, as Jokowi moves to restrict the activities of more radical Islamist groups and to push back against the country’s growing Islamic exclusivism and prejudice. Late last month, the government announced that it was banning the Islamic Defenders Front, which has been at the forefront of Islamist street agitations.

Any decision to extent diplomatic recognition to Israel at this juncture would likely further inflame radical Islamist sentiment, as well as prompting opposition from influential national Islamic organizations like Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. As Syed Huzaifah Bin Othman Alkaff of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) commented in a paper this week, “domestic radical Islamist elements will feature strongly in Indonesia’s decision-making processes on issues pertaining to relations with Israel.”

Given the costs, it is also questionable whether formal recognition would be worth it. Despite having no formal diplomatic relations, Indonesia and Israel quietly maintain a range of ties in trade, security, and tourism.

Although a lot of trade between Jakarta and Tel Aviv is routed through third countries, making the volume hard to verify, it reached an estimated $400-500 million in 2013, most of which was Indonesian exports. In 2016, an Israeli official put the total at “hundreds of millions of dollars a year.” An Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce has been based in Tel Aviv since 2009.

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Similarly, an estimated 30,000 Indonesian Christian pilgrims visit Israel each year, in addition to a not inconsiderable number of Israeli backpackers and tourists moving in the other direction.

As Alkaff of NTU argued, for Indonesia to recognize Israel “would likely require a deal that would grant strategic political, economic or military advantage which would not only appease nationalists but also be worth the trouble with Islamist groups.”

It’s hard to see what offer would tip that balance. For now, Jokowi’s government will content itself with continuing the proven formula: rhetorical opposition to Israel, alongside sub rosa economic and political interactions.