Since taking office, President Joko Widodo has publicly alluded to the issue of Palestinian independence twice: at the 60th anniversary of the Asia-Africa Conference and at the recent Nahdlatul Ulama congress.
However, if Jokowi is truly bent on translating rhetoric into action, a radical change of strategy may be needed.
The current stance of denying Israel any official recognition at every opportunity ─ at least in public view─ isn’t serving Indonesia well. By default, it places Indonesia as an outsider when it comes to Israel. The policy also entails an extremely restrictive visa policy regarding Israeli passport holders.
These draconian measures no doubt preclude people-to-people contact between the two nations, in effect perpetuating mistrust and prejudice, as Israeli badminton player Misha Zilberman discovered lately.
The Jerusalem Post reported that Zilberman had applied for a visa six months prior to his scheduled match in the world championships tournament in Jakarta. With assistance from the Olympic Committee of Israel and the Badminton World Federation, he was eventually able to enter the country, but not before going through a “harrowing” experience in which Indonesian authorities had tried to “break” and “humiliate” him.
To add insult to injury, he received death threats and anti-Semitic slurs from Indonesians on social media. Emanuel Shahaf, the CEO of Technology Asia Consulting who often acts as a consultant to Israeli entrepreneurs wishing to do business with Indonesia, stressed in an e-mail that Israel and Jewry are not necessarily one and the same thing. “About half of world Jewry lives outside Israel and Indonesians make the mistake of identifying Jews with Israel and Israel with Jews. 20 percent of Israel's population is Arab, mostly Muslim and they are Israelis as well.”
Rabid anti-Semitism can only be detrimental to Indonesia’s image abroad, particularly in Israel, which in turn could only decimate the country’s potential soft-power influence on the Palestinian question. The bare facts are: Israel is here to stay, and there’s nothing Indonesia can do to change this. So persuasion is key to the peace endeavor since Israel’s good will is indispensable in the process.
Yet we can’t possibly hope to persuade Israel when we refuse to come to terms with its existence, especially when the Indonesian government has been known to engage Israel to suit its interest, albeit covertly. As Australian academic Greg Barton wrote in a 2005 essay: "the New Order regime found it useful to conduct unoﬃcial dealings with Israel, most signiﬁcantly in the area of military hardware.”
On Jan. 12, 2005, the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that an Israeli airplane carrying 75 tons of emergency materials had landed in Aceh in the aftermath of the tsunami. The Israeli delegation was led by the MFA director-general Ron Prosor and was met by Indonesian “senior officials.”
Another Israeli mission carrying 90 tons of materials was also reported to have landed in Batam. However, when the news leaked out, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs strenuously denied that it had issued air clearance for these planes to land on Indonesian territory.
Direct trade between Israel and Indonesia also exists, though its official value is currently very small, because most trade between the two countries occurs through a third party. Ron Snir, the first secretary of the economic and trade mission at the Embassy of Israel in Singapore wrote that “only [US] $15 million dollars' worth of goods were exported from Israel to Indonesia, and $30 million were imported from Indonesia to Israel.”
By comparison, Israel’s trade with Singapore and Malaysia stands at $ 1.6 billion and $1 billion respectively. Shahaf estimates the real trade figure for Israel and Indonesia ─ including indirect trade ─ to be somewhere between $400 million and $500 million.
He estimated that the true potential trade between Indonesia and Israel could be around $5 billion. “Israel's trade with Turkey even under Erdogan reached almost $5 billion in 2013.” Turkey, along with Egypt and Jordan, are Muslim-majority nations which maintain diplomatic ties with Israel.
Jokowi’s wish to see Indonesia become self-sufficient in food production may also find a boon in Israel, a world leader in agricultural knowhow. In his 2014 article, Shahaf wrote that “Specifically for rice farmers, Israeli technology now makes it possible to grow rice without flooding the fields, using trickle irrigation. This development makes it possible for farmers to grow cash crops in the off-season and thus supplement their income materially.”
To start with, he believes that Jakarta should make good on an apparent 2012 intention to open a consulate in Ramallah, the de facto capital city of the Palestinian State. “[This will also mean that Indonesia] can maintain the link with Israel, without establishing diplomatic relations. That step was apparently agreed upon [in 2012] but the Indonesian side ostensibly reneged when it discovered that access to Ramallah is only through Israel.”
This, however, may be about to change. When Jokowi met with the Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah last April, he expressed the government’s desire to honor the pledge. “Next step could be to establish an Israeli trade office in Jakarta,” Shahaf suggested in an e-mail. He called it the “Taiwan model.” In deference to China, Indonesia doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Taiwan but allows the country a trade office in Jakarta.
The late President Abdurrahman Wahid believed in the benefits Indonesia-Israel engagement could bring. He made it his personal goal to see it through, but his presidency was short-lived. So his visionary idea has been left dormant for more than a decade. The prayer of St. Francis of Assisi to ask for “the strength to accept the things [we] cannot change, the courage to change the things [we] can, and the wisdom to know the difference” never seems more apposite than now.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya.