August 26, 2022
JAKARTA – Former vice president Jusuf Kalla has suggested that the government open diplomatic ties with Israel to enable Indonesia to act as a mediator between Israel and Palestine. Kalla’s idea is realistic because Indonesia can never play an honest peace brokering role in the Middle East if it does not recognize Israel.
Unfortunately, domestic audiences here will unlikely accept the suggestion for many reasons, even though they know Kalla is an influential Muslim leader.
And even when we finally open diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, albeit only for trade, we cannot facilitate the settlement of this complex issue. We are too naïve to think that Israel will listen to or be ready to compromise with the Palestinians for the sake of good relations with Indonesia. For Indonesian Muslims, both moderate and conservative, as long as Palestinian people are oppressed by the Israelis, they will not support Kalla’s idea.
It is not clear why Kalla, a businessman-cum-politician and chairman of the Indonesian Mosque Council (DMI) and the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI), raised the politically sensitive issue at this moment. As far as I remember, this is the first time he has openly proposed diplomatic relations between Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, and Israel.
But knowing Kalla’s character, I believe his proposal is a well-planned scenario.
Kalla may have government backing, although I am almost sure that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will never accept the idea because it would be political suicide to say anything good about Israel. It is almost unimaginable that the current government would consider opening a formal relationship with Israel. So far trade and defense ties between the two countries go through a third party.
Speaking as a keynote speaker during an academic discussion on Palestine, which was organized by the University of Indonesia’s School of Strategic and Global Studies (SKSG UI) on Aug. 19, Kalla underlined Indonesia’s persistent support for Palestine’s independence in a two-state system, meaning Palestine and Israel coexisting as free nations
“It’s impossible to broker peace without understanding the two sides well. I did so,” he said. Kalla has visited both the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel and confirmed he had met Israeli and Palestinian officials in his private capacity. As vice president, Kalla reportedly met with then Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018.
In 1993, then president Soeharto hosted a closed-door meeting with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at his private residence on Jalan Cendana, Central Jakarta. But there was no follow-up to the meeting, although it was a public secret that back then the Indonesian military built close cooperation with the Israeli military, including on arms procurement and exchanges of intelligence information.
Indonesia’s fourth president, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid was the staunchest supporter of diplomatic ties with Israel and never hesitated to demonstrate his stance. He communicated with Israeli leaders, including Simon Peres. Being a former chairman of the country’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Gus Dur could spare any backlash from anti-Israel groups, but still he could not realize his idea.
President Jokowi himself has repeatedly expressed support for the establishment of a free Palestinian state. As mandated by the Constitution, Indonesia has consistently fought for Palestine’s independence and denounced Israel’s brutality against the Palestinians. Many individuals and groups have joined humanitarian action to help the Palestinians, including the establishment of hospitals in the occupied territory.
Kalla, who served as vice president under president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from 2004 to 2009, and under President Jokowi from 2014 to 2019, has extensive experience as a peace mediator domestically and internationally. He played a key role in ending the prolonged Aceh war, and the sectarian conflicts in Maluku and Poso in Central Sulawesi.
Kalla also launched shuttle diplomacy to bring warring factions in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, to a negotiating table. Soon after NATO left Afghanistan last year, the Taliban regained power and immediately brought the country back to the Stone Age. But still, Kalla has credentials as a peacemaker there.
There is no hope for decades to come for Israel to let Palestine become an independent country. The loud support for Palestine seems to entertain the domestic audience. Even some Arab countries have shown less interest in supporting Palestine and have restored diplomatic ties with Israel instead.
Then United States president Donald Trump openly told President Jokowi he would provide Indonesia up to US$2 billion in development aid if Jokowi agreed to officially recognize Israel and open diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. Indonesia responded that it would only accept Trump’s offer only if he acknowledged Palestine as a free nation.
Kalla has raised a noble idea but realpolitik in Indonesia will make it impossible to materialize.
Knowing his strong influence within Muslim populations from various backgrounds, his no-nonsense approach and vast experience as a peace broker, I guess Kalla has already prepared a grand strategy to achieve his mission in the Middle East. He will continue to push for it because he barely faces political risks.
Kalla’s Israel idea deserves support. But Indonesia can only open diplomatic ties with Israel after the realization of an independent Palestine state, which is next to impossible so far.