In the wake of Israel’s heavy-handed attacks on the Gaza Strip over the past week, several Middle Eastern nations have been forced into an uncomfortable position. The United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Bahrain are caught between a need to respond to the actions undertaken by Israel, with whom they have only recently normalized ties, with their commitment to Gaza, which they feel politically and spiritually bound to defend.
Most have resolved the question by biting their tongues. There has been no strong pushback towards Israel from any of these nations, nor from the wider international community, which largely recognizes Israel over Palestine. The role of states lying outside of the Middle East is therefore crucial to holding Israel accountable for actions that many observers view as war crimes. Countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, two Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia, must now take on an extra responsibility for challenging Israel’s narrative about the conflict and championing the Palestinian cause.
The past few years have seen a trend toward normalization of bilateral ties with Israel. In 2020, the country established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco, and Bahrain. Following these changes, Israel’s ambassador to Singapore, Sagi Karni, suggested his country would be interested in pursuing better relations with Malaysia and Indonesia as well.
Muslim-majority states beyond the Middle East are vital to the pursuit of accountability for Israel over Gaza. The United States and Europe have proven numerous times that their humanitarian principles do not apply to Palestinians. Additionally, more Arab states are leaning towards normalizing ties with Israel. It must therefore fall to the global Islamic community to hold Israel accountable and defend the Palestinian right to self-determination. In light of this latest siege on Gaza, a response to attacks on Israeli civilians by the militant group Hamas on October 7, Israel has proven that it will continue to collectively punish Palestinian civilians for the actions of Hamas. Malaysia and Indonesia must seize this moment to “roll back” Israel’s growing popularity. There is an abundance of evidence from this war alone to convince other countries of the devastating consequences, for Palestine, of Arab states’ establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel.
Since the Hamas incursions, Israel has been allowed to bomb Gaza and target civilian infrastructures with impunity. This, and its deployment of white phosphorus in civilian-populated areas, is a known international war crime, as is the bombing of designated evacuation routes. So far, Gaza has seen double the fatality rate that Israel suffered at the hands of Hamas. The Israeli Defense Forces will soon commence a ground offensive in Gaza, guaranteeing countless more civilian deaths.
So far, there has been no international intervention to prevent these atrocities. Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission (EC), has in fact made clear the EC’s support for this brutal campaign. U.S. President Joe Biden has also reiterated U.S. support for Israel’s supposed self-defense. More tellingly, many Arab nations have been reticent on the matter.
The United Arab Emirates has not directly imposed any pressure on Israel to cease its campaign in Gaza. Before normalization, it had not hesitated to label Israel as an “occupying power” and disrupter of the peace process. Morocco had also been more assertive prior to recognizing Israel. In 2018, it protested the relocation of foreign embassies to Jerusalem and joined the Arab League ministerial delegation in protesting against the U.S. embassy being moved there. Now, however, it has opted to imply that both Israel and Hamas are equally responsible for the current conflict. Bahrain employed a similar approach, even though it had been vocal in the past about “Israel’s intransigence” and its “collective punishment of all Palestinians.”
It is evident that the normalization of bilateral ties has diminished these countries’ willingness to openly criticize Israel’s actions. Growing recognition of Israel has therefore served only to further widen the disparity between Israel and Palestine.
Malaysia and Indonesia must buck the trend. There are now only six countries in Asia that do not formally recognize Israel; the others are Brunei, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Pakistan. Sagi Karni’s overtures to Malaysia and Indonesia suggest that Israel wishes to spread its diplomatic ties to this corner of the globe. They must work together to curb these ambitions.
The first step is to form minilateral arrangements based on this commonality. Malaysia and Indonesia can form a regional bloc comprising these six countries, with whom each of them has healthy relations, and/or reach out to the remaining Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) states that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Thus far, these countries have only made their own individual responses to the Gaza conflict. Combining their voices may give them more sway to demand international action towards Israel for its most recent actions.
Secondly, Malaysia and Indonesia must focus in particular on initiating dialogue with Saudi Arabia, which is on the brink of normalizing ties with Israel. This war has potentially jeopardized Israel’s position with the Saudis, a risk that even U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned Israel about. Saudi Arabia has already halted its normalization deal with the latter in light of these recent developments, with the Saudi Crown Prince re-engaging in correspondence with Iran to discuss the regional implications of the war. This can be the ideal opportunity for Malaysia, Indonesia, and like-minded countries to engage with Saudi Arabia and turn the tide against Israel’s growing global recognition.
Based on this initial Islamic cooperation, they may then also leverage their memberships in existing international organizations to push for more tangible outcomes. Over the years, economic action has mostly revolved around the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has had limited impact beyond grassroots activism since its inception in 2005. Previously, the Arab League had imposed a boycott of Israel, which is now only enforced by Lebanon and Syria, as well as Iran in its capacity in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In 2014 and 2018, respectively, Spain and the United Kingdom decided to freeze arms exports to Israel over the regime’s brutal actions in Gaza. This indicates that individually, certain states may feel pushed to respond when Israel’s behavior crosses a line. There is an opportunity here for Malaysia and Indonesia, along with the aforementioned states advocating for justice, to call on members of the global community to act against Israel’s continued violations of international law.
Malaysia and Indonesia are known for already being staunch regional advocates of the Palestinian cause. On the Malaysian side, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim recently proposed a RM10 million (USD 2.1 million) government pledge dedicated to aid for Palestine. Malaysia is a vocal member of the OIC Committee of Six on Palestine. It pushes for international action and boycotts each time Israel launches an offensive on Gaza. The Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur has frequently hosted numerous conferences revolving around the plight of Palestinians, such as the International Conference on Palestine Kuala Lumpur and Analyzing the Israeli Occupation of Palestine. Malaysia is also an academic center for the Palestine cause. Institutions such as the University of Malaya, the International Islamic University Malaysia, and the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies consistently promote intellectual discourse on Palestinian issues. The government has bolstered these initiatives by providing scholarships to Palestinian students, such as the UTM Serambi Al-Quds program.
Indonesia has likewise not shied away from pinpointing Israel’s politics of dispossession as the ultimate cause of the continued conflict. As the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, it has also signed several MOUs towards numerous capacity-building programs for Palestine in the interests of supporting good governance. It has a history of dedicating significant funds to these initiatives and providing tertiary education scholarships to Palestinian students. Stable people-to-people connections also underpin the two countries’ bilateral ties. As of 2019, there was an annual average of around 90,000 Indonesian tourists to Palestine each year.
Nevertheless, Malaysia and Indonesia must do more than simply continue their respective policies of non-recognition. It is time for them to lead the call for a more robust international intervention. For there to be any real change on the horizon for Gaza, the international community must remain staunchly intolerant of war crimes and genocide – whoever is committing them, in any part of the world. If not the West, and if not the MENA nations, countries in other parts of the world must stand up against blatant violations of international law. Sagi Karni’s hopes for friendship with Malaysia and Indonesia must go unrequited. No doubt it would be a boon for Israel to gain diplomatic access to two of Asia’s largest Muslim-majority countries. But Southeast Asia should be where Tel Aviv’s global charm offensive comes to an end.