Nazari Ismail and Ahmad Hani Hariza
Hashim Sani Centre for Palestine Studies
University of Malaya
With 88% of its total population of 278 million professing Islam, Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and is undoubtedly a vital component in the global Islamic voice. This fact drives Indonesia’s consistent pro-Palestine stance since President Soekarno’s era as the country’s leader. Soekarno’s anti-colonialism belief greatly influenced Indonesia’s foreign policy on the Palestinian issue, which has remained strong till today. Indonesia’s condemnation of imperialism and colonialism is embedded in Indonesia’s Constitution or Undang-Undang Dasar 1945 (UUD’45), where the preamble directly states, “Whereas independence is the inalienable right of all nations, therefore, all colonialism must be abolished in this world as it is not in conformity with humanity and justice”. In that spirit, Indonesia has openly refused any formal diplomatic ties with Israel, treating the country as an extension of Western imperialism.
Indonesia’s official stance against Israel continues up to the present Jokowi administration. President Jokowi even stated during the 2014 presidential debate that he is deeply committed to the cause of Palestine and considers the Palestine issue the priority of his foreign policy. It also aligns with his goal of boosting Indonesia’s active role in the international arena. Pursuant to that, the foreign policy direction aims to make Indonesia the middle power or the problem solver, with a high commitment to solving crises in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East.
By making the best use of its position as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), a member of the Human Rights Council and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Indonesia has, on several occasions, given diplomatic support for the Palestine cause. One example is Indonesia’s stance during the OIC’s fifth extraordinary summit in Jakarta in 2016. During that meeting, President Jokowi successfully led all member states to support the ‘Jakarta Declaration’ that includes proposals to resolve issues relating to Palestine. In 2019, under the UNSC banner, Indonesia spearheaded the convening of an Arria-formula meeting on the issue of illegal Israeli settlements which called for international pressure and condemnation on Israel for the illegal Jewish settlements in Palestine, citing its undermining of the two-state solution and violations of international law and Palestinian rights.
However, this position is presently under severe test because it is perceived to be at odds with Indonesia’s efforts for national economic development and her capitalization of available economic opportunities. The most recent example was the Under-20 FIFA World Cup, initially to be hosted by Indonesia but subsequently called off. Bali governor Wayan Koster refused to allow the Israeli national team to participate in the event due to concerns related to the Palestine conflict. Governor Koster communicated his stance to the Ministry of Youth and Sports, urging the adoption of a policy barring the Israeli team from competing in Bali. In response, FIFA, the global football governing body, decided to remove Indonesia as the host for the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2023 and gave the right to Argentina. There are also discussions about potential sanctions against the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI), which might include their exclusion from the Asian qualifying stages of the 2026 World Cup, scheduled to commence in October.
Reaction to this is mixed. On the one hand, those against the Israeli football team setting foot on Indonesian soil rejoiced at the resolution. On the other hand, there were also feelings of dismay over the incident. Some Indonesians say that Indonesia is shooting itself in the foot over the issue. In addition, many are concerned about the future of Indonesian football and possible business investment losses, which may impact the Indonesian economy and tourism sector. Indonesian players remain hopeful that the situation sides with them and that FIFA will not impose any sanctions on them. However, the Indonesian Football Association expressed its disappointment with the situation, especially regarding the economic losses amounting to trillions of Rupiah. The sports minister continues to assure Indonesians that FIFA understands their circumstances and will repair relationships in the future.
Amidst all this, notably, is President Jokowi’s live press statement that expressed dissatisfaction with the result, saying that sports and politics should not be mixed, even going so far as to quote the sympathetic remarks by the Palestinian ambassador to Indonesia, who approved of Indonesia hosting all qualified teams – including Israel.
Football, while on the surface may seem apolitical, does often carry political implications. FIFA, for example, has swiftly imposed a ban and sanction on Russia immediately after Putin decided to invade Ukraine. In other words, it is completely naive and unjustified to say that sports are detached from politics. However, the act of allowing representatives of Israel to participate would immediately betray Indonesia’s causes, policy pronouncements and political position. Not only would this mean a public and de facto recognition of Israel as a state (though Indonesia does support the two-state solution), but more importantly, it signifies a glossing over of all the atrocities and crimes Israel committed against the people of Palestine. Any talk of normalization by the government would also represent an inconsistency with and a breach of the Indonesian constitution, potentially triggering political and constitutional turmoil.
The controversy over Israeli participation in the FIFA U-20 tournament in Indonesia is just another instance of a long-running series of murmurings and tentative actions on the prospect of normalization between Indonesia and Israel. Ever since the signing of the Abraham Accord and initial interest from US president Donald Trump in bringing Indonesia into it, reports have emerged about progress towards a breakthrough between the two countries, with the US playing its part as the promoter for expanding the Abraham Accord. For example, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, in 2021 to discuss potential diplomatic ties with Israel. Another is the Indonesian defence minister’s reported interaction with Israel’s diplomatic representatives in Bahrain.
Despite this, breakthrough to this day remains unlikely for several reasons, with the first being that Indonesia is home to some of the largest and most influential Muslim organizations in the world. They include the Muhammadiyah, the Nahdlatul Ulama, the Indonesian Ulama Council, and others, including the more extreme radical right-wing groups. Undermining the voices of these massive groups could trigger unprecedented opposition reactions against the government, which can negatively impact the second reason which is electoral politics. Embracing normalization could mean a swift political downfall for whoever is leading the government, whether President Jokowi or any future successor, due to substantial popular resistance mustered by the said organizations.
Despite the political condition above, ties between the two countries continue quietly through soft diplomacy, mainly through economic channels. By no means have the two foreclosed all trade channels. The estimated amount of bilateral trade between the two is around USD 400 million, with imports from Israel mainly coming from high-tech products. This trade relationship between the two nations is operating behind closed doors, often with the involvement of intermediaries, with the most notable player in this covert process being Indolink, a trading broker based in Israel. Indolink facilitates trade talks and transactions and offers services related to the administrative aspects of import and export procedures. Soft diplomacy is another channel for the two to continue strengthening ties through sponsored cultural diplomacy programs such as the Israel Asia Centre, which conduct training courses for entrepreneurs and professionals to create business deals. They believe that diplomatic ties are optional for a binational chamber of commerce.
Israel, however, is not satisfied with its current relationship with Indonesia. It will likely continue to seek formal acceptance and normalization with Indonesia. For Israel, seeking legitimacy in the eyes of the international community remains the priority of its foreign policy goals. It has grappled with maintaining its reputation amid delegitimization by Arab and Muslim countries since its inception; hence normalizing relations is a critical foreign policy objective due to its regional isolation.
Even though more Arab countries are reversing their stance and normalizing relations with Israel, Indonesia should be resolute in its present policy of refusing to normalize relations with Israel. Indonesians must recognize the significance of their country’s refusal to formalize ties with Israel. Since Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world and is a democratic country, reversing the stance would be a momentous mistake because it would be a significant victory for Israel. Normalization of ties between Indonesia and Israel would further enhance the latter’s legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. It will frustrate all attempts to rightfully designate Israel as a colonial project engaged in cruel apartheid crimes towards the indigenous Palestinian population. Hence it would also qualify to be included in the list of the most significant betrayals towards the cause of justice, freedom and equality for Palestinians.
Mohd Nazari Ismail is professor and director of the Hashim Sani Centre for Palestine Studies, University of Malaya.
Ahmad Hani Hariza is an intern at the centre and is currently finishing his degree in International Relations at IIUM.
Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the stand of TRP.