Time for Indonesia to get Down to Business in the Middle East 28.4.2006

Time for Indonesia to get down to business in Mideast

Friday, April 28, 2006

Jakarta Post, Indonesia

The government and legislature of Indonesia have both recognized the importance for the nation to involve itself, at some level, in the efforts to work towards peace in the Middle East. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has expressed this wish several times and so has the House of Representatives' Commission I when recommending more government involvement in the area, as reported by this paper on March 21.

While the above expressions of interest have been of a general nature, what both, government and the House really mean is that they would like very much to establish a representation in Palestine, which, due to geopolitical circumstances, requires the agreement of the government of Israel.

 Israel, from its point of view, has an interest in Indonesia's involvement in the Middle East but naturally expects a nation that wants to play a part in the peace process, to establish relations with both sides.

 As a result, Indonesia, reluctant as always to make any move that could be interpreted as recognition of Israel before there is a peace agreement with the Palestinians, is torn between its interest to get involved and play a part and its disinclination to do anything that would indicate an opening towards the Jewish State. In this situation, nothing is happening and the interests of all concerned are not being served.

 One of the main reasons that Indonesia is so reticent to make a move towards Israel, even within the framework of establishing relations with the Palestinians, is the perception that such a development would possibly cause unrest in Indonesia among those radical groups that still vociferously are against any rapprochement with the Zionist state.

 While this concern can be understood, time and again it has been proven that the Indonesian public is often more astute and tied to reality than its politicians. Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda's meeting with his Israeli counterpart Shalom in 2005 was widely reported and caused no great public outcry.

 The ongoing mid-level contacts between Indonesia and Israel via their embassies in Singapore receive scarce notice anywhere and economic contacts are lively if mostly inconsequential.

 At the same time, the upset victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections and the difficulty this movement has moderating its agenda while being subjected to tremendous international pressure, mainly from the West, make the need for a Muslim interlocutor who has interests vis-a-vis both sides of the conflict ever more important. Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas' recent letter to President Yudhoyono adds further urgency to the matter.

 It is time that Indonesia makes up its mind — does it want to play in the Middle East or does it not? Indonesia would like to support the Palestinians but cannot get itself to make the minimum effort that is necessary when many other Muslim countries, not to talk about the Palestinians themselves, have overcome their problem long ago and established overt relations at some level with Israel.

 Indonesia wants Israeli investments, know-how and technology but is not willing to provide any kind of safety net to Israelis who want to do business here. If Indonesia indeed wants to get involved there is a price to pay.

 The price is clear and sensible, and what is even better, it is not even expensive: Let Israel open an office in Jakarta just like Taiwan, a nation also not officially recognized by Indonesia. In return, Indonesia will open an office in Ramallah or Abu Dis on the outskirts of Jerusalem to maintain contact with the Palestinians and another one in Tel-Aviv, to liaise with Israel.

 Once the contacts with Israel which until now have existed but were officially denied time and again, will be in the open they will be subject to public scrutiny and thus enable the legislature to make sure that they will be used in the commercial and business fields to advance the Indonesian economy.

 And it will permit Indonesia to really push for a peaceful solution in Palestine, supporting the Palestinians.

 Indonesia's offices in Palestine would be able to serve the many Indonesian pilgrims who come to Jerusalem and at the same time it would establish a presence that could open additional options in any future peace negotiations when it comes to the disposition of the Muslim holy places in the city. The presence on the ground of a moderate Muslim nation can only help in these difficult times and the Indonesian public would surely recognize the significance.

 While this suggestion may give the legal advisors of the Foreign Ministries on all sides some headaches, the Taiwan solution is there to be copied providing a reasonable compromise between the as of yet not-acceptable diplomatic recognition and the counterproductive status-quo.

 Let's stop this constant stream of denials of meetings that have taken place or not, let's stop the foreplay and get down to business.

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

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