Indonesia and the Middle East: A Policy of Wasted Opportunities 16.6.2006

Indonesia and the Middle East: A policy of wasted opportunities

Friday, June 16, 2006

Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Anak Agung Banyu Perwita's interesting article on the ties between Indonesia and Palestine on June 6 followed by Broto Wardoyo's RI-Middle East analysis on June 13 in this paper provide both, a historical review and some wishful thinking with regard to the future of RI's Middle East policy.

 Historically, without doubt, the intention of the policies pursued was to serve the aims of the Indonesian government of the time, but they were mostly removed from the Middle Eastern regional context.

 More than anything they gave expression to pent-up anti-colonial and anti-Western feelings which found relief after U.S. pressure on Indonesia faded towards the end of the cold war, and the desire to support the Palestinians in their worthy yet for the time being futile attempt to attain independence.

 Only rarely have Indonesian policy moves vis-a-vis the Middle East made any attempt to act in a regional context, taking into account the area developments and trying to use these developments to leverage Indonesia's considerable potential as a mediator and really help the Palestinians.

 How did Indonesia fail in this respect? Indonesia's foreign policy in the Middle East is guided, more than anything, by its local politics trying to tread very carefully wherever Islamists may object. Accordingly, all RI ever did was to make diplomatic moves vis-a-vis the Palestinians, which other than causing some publicity had very little impact.

 Sure enough, Palestine was able to open an embassy in Jakarta providing another sought after position for PLO members who preferred to be outside Palestine, understandable in view of the situation there. But without becoming personal here, has the Palestinian embassy in Jakarta made an impact, any impact?

 In addition to pursuing futile policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians, Indonesia has made no effort at developing a truly independent position in the Middle East conflict. It let itself be drawn into never ending, ultimately useless moves pursued by the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) and the Arab League against Israel, organizations that never ever were able to provide the Palestinians with anything but broken promises, nor were they able to come up with viable peace initiatives.

 Indonesia has not even picked up on the cues of the numerous Arab nations that have developed more balanced relations in the region and opened embassies in Tel-Aviv, not to talk about the Palestinians themselves. Looking at the record, Indonesia may well become the last Muslim country to forge diplomatic ties with Israel, with numerous opportunities wasted.

 This is particularly unfortunate because as one of the leading unaligned countries, Muslim at that, Indonesia was and is in a particularly strong position to make a difference.

 Broto Wardoyo's modesty in trying to minimize Indonesia's potential impact once again strengthens those (and there are many) who call for Indonesia to move very cautiously with regard to relations with Israel . The implication is: Why get ourselves in trouble if we don't make a difference anyway?

 The economic argument that mediation is expensive is peculiar — establishing diplomatic relations with Israel will provide such an impetus to bilateral economic relations that it will pay back thousand-fold any Indonesian investment in possible Midele East mediation efforts in the first year. Just look what happened to Jordan's and Egypt's international trade, in particular vis-a-vis the U.S., as a direct byproduct of their diplomatic and economic agreements with Israel.

 Indonesia doesn't have to compete with anyone, and RI shouldn't even consider opening relations with Israel if the only purpose is to mediate in the Middle East Peace Process and help the Palestinians. The main reasons why Indonesia should open relations with Israel are because it is the right thing to do, it is long overdue and it opens a huge potential for Indonesia's economy.

 Israel doesn't need Indonesia's legitimization for its existence. Israel's existence was legitimized by the United Nation's partition decision of November 1947. The fact that the present boundaries of Israel, because of the occupation of Palestinian lands are in dispute is no reason not to have diplomatic relations and Israel has them with 160 (!) countries, nine of them non-Arab Muslim.

 Indonesia's own boundaries were in dispute for 25 years because of the illegal occupation of East-Timor. That didn't prevent countries from maintaining diplomatic relations with Indonesia, nor did it prevent Israel from selling RI it's fleet of Skyhawk A-4 attack aircraft.

 The Muslim countries that have developed diplomatic relations with Israel are the only ones who have an impact on the Palestinian issue. Egypt and Jordan are both frequent mediators when direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians are stalled, Turkey is a strong contributor reminding Israel occasionally that there is a lot to lose if the conflict doesn't get settled soon and Morocco is often involved as well.

 Real change can only be effected if people are exposed to Israelis, if they can visit an Israeli Embassy in Jakarta where they can see and hear the Israeli side and have an open dialogue with Israelis every day.

 When this happens, maybe even Broto Wardoyo will understand that it is actually most Israelis, not only some, who reject the occupation and are in favor of the two state solution with Palestinians living freely in a nation of their own, with mutually and internationally agreed upon borders. And a large majority of them are Zionists too.

The writer is a retired (Israeli) diplomat who served in South East Asia from 2000-2003.

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