Why Indonesia should open diplomatic relations with Israel

If Indonesia wishes to meaningfully support Palestinians and a two-state solution, then targeting Israeli teenagers is not the way to do it, says the writer.

Niruban Balachandran

Niruban Balachandran

The Jakarta Post


A protestor waves the Palestinian flag during a rally outside the United States Embassy on Jl. Medan Merdeka Selatan, Jakarta on May 18, 2021.(Antara/Genta Tenri Mawangi)

April 5, 2023

JAKARTA – FIFA’s decision to remove Indonesia as the host of the 2023 Under-20 (U-20) World Cup represents a humiliating “own goal” loss to Indonesia, with the costs of a damaged international image post-Group of 20, angry soccer fans, the threat of class action lawsuits, economic losses of trillions of rupiah, potential FIFA sanctions and Indonesia’s likely inability to host other future international sporting events, including the 2034 World Cup or the 2036 Olympics.

FIFA made its decision in response to the proposed “conditions” (read: unacceptable restrictions) demanded by select Indonesian politicians singling out the Israel youth team, including refusing to allow the team to play in Bali and Central Java. These politicians did this to demonstrate their ostensible support for the “Palestinian cause”.

Indeed, Indonesia supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and has been a partisan of the Palestinian cause since at least the 1955 Bandung Conference. Indonesia has yet to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

The politicians’ actions backfired. Now, Muslim nation Qatar and other nations are offering to replace Indonesia as the FIFA U-20 World Cup host next month. For much of the world, the Indonesian politicians’ position appears unreasonable, cruel and perhaps even anti-Semitic, especially since the Israeli players are all between 17 and 19 years old.

If Indonesia wishes to meaningfully support Palestinians and a two-state solution, then targeting Israeli teenagers is not the way to do this. Rather, Indonesia can and should recognize the existence of Israel and open diplomatic relations if it is serious about supporting Palestinians. There are at least three reasons why Indonesia should open diplomatic relations with Israel.

First, Indonesia cannot create a two-state solution by talking with only one of the two parties.

Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud M.D. recently stated: “Indonesia doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel and this will remain so until Palestine is free.” This mirrors the belief of Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and other Indonesian policymakers.

This policy is as lazy as it is ineffective. It squanders Indonesia’s opportunity to play a role in negotiating a two-state solution, which it supports. Poll after poll shows that the majority of Israelis also support this idea.

Throughout its diplomatic history, Israel has been considerably responsive to requests from over 165 diplomatic partner nations (or 85 percent of the 193 total UN member nations), especially Muslim-majority and Abraham Accords signatory countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, Bahrain and Egypt. All of these countries already have embassies and/or ambassadors in Israel who have successfully negotiated with Israelis for economic aid, territorial boundary demarcations, cease-fires and other benefits on behalf of Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia, Oman, Niger and other nations are likely next to enter the Abraham Accords with Israel. In contrast, Indonesia has none of these advantages for negotiating with Israel toward Palestinian statecraft.

Some Israeli policymakers have indeed been resistant to talking with their Palestinian counterparts. But the same can be said for Palestinian policymakers, many of whom have rejected at least seven proposed two-state solutions since the 1940s.

Second, nothing is unconstitutional about Indonesian-Israeli diplomatic relations.

Indeed, the 1945 Constitution’s “anticolonial” preamble is still open to legal interpretation, and no major United Nations body has ever officially defined the Palestinian West Bank or Gaza as “colonies”. However, a myth driving anger among Indonesian Muslims is that Jews are foreign “colonizers” in Palestine.

This is untrue. The Jewish people are indigenous to what was Judea and Samaria 4,000 years ago, their ancient homeland located in today’s West Bank. For centuries, the Jews there were attacked, expelled and dispersed worldwide by different conquerors, including the Babylonian and Roman Empires.

Zionism, born from viciously relentless European anti-Semitism, is the Jews’ return to the homeland they envisioned as a necessary haven. The need for such a haven was amply proven by the Shoah (Holocaust), Nazi Germany’s coordinated international murder of over 6 million Jews.

The 1945 Constitution also calls for peace diplomacy. As former Indonesian diplomat Ary Aprianto explained: “Reaching out to all concerned parties is an absolute necessity in any peace effort […]. We [must] remain creative in fulfilling that constitutional mandate.”

Third, Indonesians will never again miss out on advanced growth opportunities in future.

Losing the hosting rights to this year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup is only the latest opportunity that Indonesia has missed. For example, research shows that ordinary people-to-people exchanges tend to improve mutual understanding despite ethnoreligious differences. According to surveys, 96 percent of Indonesians have never met a Jew. But the government has neglected numerous chances to lead such exchanges between Israelis and Indonesians, which could instead build bridges and help fulfill its constitutional mandate.

In addition to this illogic, Indonesia should consider what its policy costs the country, not only in providing meaningful support to Palestinians, but also in annual direct and indirect economic losses. For instance, Israel’s trade with Muslim Abraham Accords signatories last year exceeded US$2.8 billion. Where was Indonesia?

A RAND economic study shows that Indonesia could miss out on a putative Abraham Accords trade agreement with Israel and other Middle Eastern economies that would otherwise give Indonesia $370 billion in future economic activity, a 6.5 percent increase in gross domestic product, 1,705,000 new jobs and a decrease in unemployment rate from 4.8 percent to 3.6 percent. Where will Indonesia be?

Since 2020, five Muslim-majority nations have recognized Israel: the UAE, Bahrain, Kosovo, Sudan and Morocco. This risks Indonesia’s reputation as a “tolerant” Muslim-majority country. Instead, other Muslim-majority nations are accruing this honor: The UAE won global praise this year for opening the Abrahamic Family House, the only interfaith site on Earth that hosts a mosque, a church and a synagogue.

Even prominent Saudi cleric Mohamed al-Issa, the chair of the Muslim World League, won the 2020 Global Anti-Semitism Award for condemning anti-Jewish hatred and visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp with fellow imams.

Indonesia is being left behind. Qatar may soon gain from Indonesia’s loss: In 2022, it allowed Israeli fans to attend the World Cup and has now offered to FIFA that it replaces Indonesia as the host of this year’s U-20 World Cup, including the Israel team.

But it is not too late. To secure international peace, strategically aid Palestinians and grow its economy for the long term, Indonesia will need to honor its national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) and open diplomatic relations with Israel.


The writer is an international development professional who focuses on building bridges between Israel and Indonesia.

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