Indonesia-Israel Relations: Is a Breakthrough Imminent?

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Indonesia-Israel Relations: Is a Breakthrough Imminent?

A normalization of relations between the two nations no longer looks impossible, though key obstacles remain.

Indonesia-Israel Relations: Is a Breakthrough Imminent?

A “Freedom for Palestine” mural on a wall in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in 2018.

Credit: Flickr/Ittmust

Since the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, the possibility that Indonesia and Israel might normalize their diplomatic relations had been mooted several times by top U.S. officials. Most recently, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue during his visit to Jakarta last month.

Israel’s quest for diplomatic recognition has a long history in Southeast Asia, beginning with Israeli technical assistance to Myanmar’s armed forces in the early 1950s. For Indonesia, the possibility of normalization was first mooted by former President Abdurrahman Wahid, but the idea is deeply unpalatable politically due to strong domestic opposition.

The situation seems to have changed in recent weeks, as various unconfirmed public sources and news reports indicate that Indonesia and Israel could be on the cusp of achieving a diplomatic breakthrough. Public denials by Indonesian politicians indicate that there are still formidable obstacles to the establishment of diplomatic relations. This would require Indonesia to amend its traditional foreign policy position on Israel, overcome significant domestic opposition, and obtain parliamentary support.

Nonetheless, the international and domestic environment is probably more favorable for the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between Indonesia and Israel than at any other time in the last 20 years.

An Opportunity for Normalization?

A confluence of external and domestic factors seems to favor normalization. Externally, many Arab countries have already formalized ties with Israel, so fears of jeopardizing Indonesia’s traditionally close ties with the Arab world is no longer a major concern.

Furthermore, diplomatic recognition could bring about significant economic benefits for Indonesia. Trade relations between Indonesia and Israel are currently valued at around $500 million a year. Normalization could trigger an inflow of Israeli technical and technology expertise into Indonesia, potentially benefiting Indonesia’s current push to strengthen its manufacturing and domestic defense industry capabilities. The U.S. also seems prepared to sweeten the deal, which would help Indonesia’s diversify its sources of foreign direct investment.

Domestically, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s political position remains unassailable as the country approaches the new presidential elections in 2024. Jokowi’s coalition remains solid, he is not seeking re-election, and he has been successful in achieving most of his key legislative priorities, including, most recently, the Law on the State Capital. That said, as the campaign season for the 2024 presidential begins in the second half of this year, Jokowi’s political position could weaken considerably in the near future.

Furthermore, the recent election of Yahya Cholil Staquf as the new chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, could be a game-changer. Yahya visited Israel in 2018, is well known for his frequent contacts with the West, and recently reaffirmed NU’s support for the Palestinian people. His brother Yaqut Cholil Qoumas is also a moderate Muslim cleric and the current minister of religious affairs. Finally, charismatic firebrand preacher Rizieq Shihab is currently imprisoned, which could prevent Indonesia’s Islamist groups, who staunchly oppose the normalization of relations with Israel, from coalescing around him.

Put together, Jokowi appears better placed than any other previous president at this point in time to smooth over the domestic turbulence and disappointment on the part of the Palestinians from any potential normalization of ties.

Three Obstacles to Normalization

Nonetheless, establishing formal relations is fraught with difficulties for three reasons. First, establishing formal diplomatic ties with Israel requires Indonesia to depart from its long-standing foreign policy position on Palestine. The preamble to its Constitution specifically states that “independence is the right of all peoples,” meaning that Indonesia is naturally opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

While Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country, its foreign ministry had been consistent in articulating a foreign policy premised on humanitarian justice. Indonesia’s traditional policy of support for the Palestinian people has thus far called for Israeli acceptance of the two-state solution as a precondition for the establishment of formal diplomatic ties.

Second, domestic sentiment is overwhelmingly supportive of the Palestinians. A survey conducted in May 2021 by SMRC, a well-known polling agency in Indonesia, found that an overwhelming majority (71 percent) of respondents agreed that Israel was responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In 2018, thousands of protestors demonstrated in Central Jakarta to protest U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the nation’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Furthermore, the many Islamic organizations in Indonesia are largely unanimous in their support of the Palestinian cause and some could decide to agitate against a potential normalization.

Third, normalization will require Indonesia’s many political parties to support the shift in foreign policy. Despite the large government coalition, party support is not guaranteed. The degree to which Indonesia’s political parties can delay or influence the process also depends on the form that normalization takes.

If normalization with Israel requires an international treaty like the one signed between UAE and Israel, the Indonesian Parliament will need to agree and ratify the treaty, which could take considerable time. Alternatively, the Indonesian government could opt to issue a Joint Communique to establish diplomatic relations, which is unlikely to require parliamentary approval, as was done for 23 other countries between 2001 and 2019. In this case, however, Parliament could still influence public opinion.

Finessing a Potential Foreign Policy Shift

If a political calculation is made that normalization with Israel is feasible and desirable, the actual shift in foreign policy can take reference from existing precedents. For instance, Indonesia does not have a formal relationship with Taiwan, but the Taipei Economic and Trade Office in Indonesia organizes regular trade missions to Indonesia. An exchange of trade representation could therefore be a less politically controversial option, while achieving much the same effect.

It is also plausible that Indonesia could decide to recognize Israel while simultaneously re-affirming its support for the Palestinians and a peaceful and negotiated two-state solution. In the Abraham Accords, both Bahrain and UAE took this option, suggesting that normalization and support for Palestine are not mutually exclusive.

Furthermore, diplomatic relations have been established between Israel and Turkey since 1949, but Turkey has continued to support the Palestinian cause, and has regularly spoken out against Israeli aggression in Palestine. Although Israeli-Turkish ties have deteriorated in recent years and ambassadors from both countries were recalled in 2018, they have nonetheless maintained robust economic and trade ties.

At the end of the day, it would require considerable political will and deftness in balancing external and domestic considerations to change Indonesia’s existing foreign policy towards Israel. Should President Jokowi decide that he wants normalization to be part of his legacy, he is probably better placed than any previous president to do so.