Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
The old city of Jerusalem. File photo

Indonesia plays down upswing in Israel ties, amid talk of ‘normalisation’ and Abraham Accords

  • A flurry of reported low profile contacts, some of them denied, have fuelled speculation Jakarta will follow the footsteps of the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco
  • But Indonesian officials are keen to play down the suggestion. With the public strongly supportive of the Palestinians, President Widodo would not want to risk upheaval, experts say
While speculation grows that Indonesia and Israel are making efforts to normalise diplomatic ties amid a flurry of low profile contacts, experts say the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation will not want to risk political upheaval by appearing to waver on its support for the Palestinian cause.

Reports about behind-the-scenes discussions for Indonesia to be the next Muslim country to sign the Abraham Accords – after the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – first emerged in the Israeli press in December, following a visit by the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Jakarta.

Blinken brought up the possibility of Indonesia normalising relations with Israel with his counterpart Retno Marsudi, who responded by reiterating Indonesia’s “consistent position” to support the Palestinians’ fight for freedom and justice, the foreign ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah told reporters at the time.

In November, Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto was pictured sitting alongside Israel national security adviser Eyal Hulata at a conference in Bahrain, where the two exchanged business cards. The former leader of Indonesia’s special forces later issued a statement that speaking to Israeli officials was “not prohibited when it serves the national interest”.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Prabowo had led an effort between the two countries to cooperate on agriculture, which would fit his additional role as overseer of President Joko Widodo’s national food estate programme, an ambitious agricultural project to boost the country’s food security, particularly beyond Java island. Prabowo has said that several foreign investors are interested in the project, namely China, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Qatar, and South Korea. However, he has denied The Jerusalem Post report claiming agricultural cooperation with Israel.

Earlier this month, Israel’s Army Radio claimed a delegation of Indonesian officials had made a rare visit to the country “in recent weeks” to meet local officials and learn about the country’s response to Covid-19. The report was quickly dismissed by the Indonesian health and foreign ministries.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Photo: AP
A few days later, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told Army Radio that Jerusalem hoped to expand the Abraham Accords to include “important countries” such as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, though he said no deals were imminent.

During a news briefing on January 21, Teuku again denied the reports that there were efforts to normalise ties with Israel and condemned the recent forced evictions of Palestinians in the restless Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. Similar moves last year had led to war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza.

“We condemned the forced eviction as this is a breach of an international agreement that has long been implemented in the occupation zone. Forced eviction cannot be justified, either within the international law or the human rights contexts,” he said.

“I also note that there are many reports now in mass media that cannot be confirmed. Indonesia’s principle on Palestinian issues remains unchanged. We support the Palestinians and we will continue to work on the two-state solution for the freedom of Palestine.”

That there are efforts in Indonesia to move in the direction of normalisation is very probable
György Busztin

Under the radar?

Responding to questions by This Week in Asia on whether Indonesia was making any attempts to engage Israel under the radar, he said if there were any they were “[so] low that it’s invisible”.

“What we can underline is that, while there are no interactions between officials of the two countries, as we don’t have diplomatic relations, there are people-to-people relations,” he said. These included the pilgrimage tours taken by Indonesians to several historic sites in Israel and private sector activities, he said.

Even without diplomatic relations, Indonesia has conducted trade with Israel, mainly in advanced-tech products. In 2006, Jakarta purchased four Israeli-made drones, via a Philippines-based trading entity, for US$6 million to help it monitor the archipelago and the Malacca Straits. An investigation by Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2018 alleged that an Israeli company had provided spyware to its Indonesian client “to create a database of LGBT rights activists” or “religious minorities”. It did not say whether the client was in the governmental or private sector.

Indonesian protesters burn the American flag during a rally outside the US Embassy in Jakarta, following Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Photo: AP

Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore, said that while the reports in the Israeli press might be credible, there were many factors in Indonesia’s domestic politics that could hinder the normalisation of ties.

“Clearly there are conversations that are ongoing, but probably those reports don’t take into account the constraints on any Indonesian government, but maybe particularly this one,” Connelly said.

“The constraints on President Joko Widodo are significant, he still seems to regard political Islam as a significant threat to political stability in Indonesia, and I think if Indonesia were to recognise or normalise relations with Israel, he would be courting political upheaval. What benefit would normalisation bring that would outweigh the risk that he would be taking, in terms of political stability?”

Indonesian Muslims are staunch supporters of the Palestinians, so much so that there are usually street protests against Israel whenever trouble flares in Gaza. Just this week, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s top body of Islamic scholars, voiced its opposition to the opening of a Holocaust museum in North Sulawesi, run by Indonesia’s only synagogue and Jewish community in West Tondano regency and curated by the Jerusalem-based World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. Muhyiddin Junaidi, vice-chairman of the advisory council at MUI, likened the museum to “support for Israel’s occupation in Palestine”.

As Israel pounds Gaza, Malaysia and Indonesia back Palestinians’ cause

He said on Tuesday it would make more sense “to build a historical museum in Jakarta that showcases Israel’s brutality towards Palestinians, as a show of support and solidarity for the Palestinians’ fight to be freed from the Zionists”.

Dr Anthony Bergin, senior fellow at Canberra-based think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said: “Israel would love to see Indonesia being included in any expanded Abraham Accords, not a question about that, but I think it’s probably more conjecture than anything else, despite the fact that the US is really, it would appear, pushing for Israel-Indonesia normalisation.”

While the Abraham Accords were clinched in the Donald Trump era, the administration of Joe Biden was keen to expand them to include Muslim countries beyond the Middle East. The Jerusalem Post claimed that the US International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) “offered to double its investment in Indonesia” if Jakarta agreed to normalise ties with Israel, but “to no avail”. In November 2020, an Indonesian delegation led by Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan travelled to the White House, during which time the IDFC signed a letter of interest to invest US$2 billion in Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund.
Abu Dhabi could emerge as a key player in encouraging Indonesia to sign up to the Abraham Accords. File photo

The UAE’s role

Saudi Arabia, which has not signed the Abraham Accords, has given its tacit blessing for Muslim countries to normalise ties with Israel. However, in Indonesia’s case, it is likely that the UAE would emerge as the third party encouraging Indonesia to sign up, rather than Riyadh, said György Busztin, a visiting research professor at the Middle East Institute at National University of Singapore.

“Saudi Arabia may welcome others doing what it cannot do for the time being. As guardian of the Holy Shrines, King Salman cannot take a step that would be deemed hugely divisive in the Islamic world, especially on account of the status of Jerusalem,” he said.

“That Indonesia going forward in normalising [ties] with Israel would be helpful to [Saudi Arabia] is evident, as it is the largest Islamic nation, but whether there was a push from Riyadh is hard to tell. However, the spectacular new boost of cooperation between the UAE and Indonesia may be an inducement.”

Are Malaysia, Indonesia finally warming to Israel?

The UAE has in the past year increased its engagement and activities with Jakarta. During Widodo’s visit to the country in November, the president managed to bag US$44.6 billion in total investment commitments from several UAE companies, including an interest by Abu Dhabi to help develop Indonesia’s new capital city.

For now, Indonesia’s engagement with Israel was likely to remain under the radar so as not to upset the country’s more than 236 million Muslims, Busztin said.

“That Indonesia denied the trip [to learn about Israel’s Covid-19 response] is an indication that it still does not feel comfortable about admitting any contact with Israel, even one that aims to save lives.”

However, he added, “That there are efforts in Indonesia to move in the direction of normalisation is very probable, on a cost-benefit basis.”

Said Busztin: “Israel is active in many international and scientific forays and engagement between the two sides is very probable, even in the absence of official relations. Israel certainly encourages this and Indonesia certainly misses no opportunity.”