Opinion

Controversy over Indonesia-Israel
relations

JAKARTA (JP): The controversy over the need to open ties with Israel was reflected in widespread demonstrations reaching Bandung and Cirebon in WestJava to Padang in West Sumatra. Resistance was displayed by several Muslim organizations, students and members of the House of Representatives (DPR). But there were also those who were in favor of the plan.

Those who resisted based their argument on the fact that Israel was stillcolonizing and trampling on the Palestinians, and that it would not conformto Resolution no. 242 and 338 of the United Nations Security Council. This resolution urges Israel to withdraw from the Arab/Palestinian territory they have occupied since the wars of 1967 and 1973.

Those who supported the plan said relations with Israel had already been conducted, albeit not in the open. They also said the existence of the Israeli state could not be denied and that trading with Israel would be no different than trading with any other country.

The issue of Indonesian-Israeli ties resurfaced not long after the new Cabinet of President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) was formed; Gus Dur and Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab mentioned their wishes to open ties with Israel although only at the level of economic and trade links. Their intentions were based on at least three factors: Gus Dur and Alwi wished tobe considered consistent in their high commitment to pluralism and inter-faith tolerance, opening trade ties with Israel would be a kind of ""short cut"" to local economic recovery and by opening ties with Israel, Jakarta hoped to help the settlement of the Middle East conflict.

At first Gus Dur and Minister Alwi wanted to open diplomatic ties betweenthe two countries. But with reactions in the country rejecting such statements and also the objections of a number of Arab country envoys, Gus Dur stated he would not open diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv until the Jewishstate recognized the independence of Palestine. Indonesia would then only open economic and trade ties with Israel. But what really would have been the advantages and disadvantages of trade ties with Israel?

The advantages for Indonesia would be: 1) to pressure Arab states into helping Indonesia's economic recovery; 2) to gain Israeli weaponry or military equipment at relatively cheaper prices; 3) to have Indonesia recognized as the largest country with a majority of Muslims who were moderate, although led by a kyai (religious teacher); 4) that formal ties with Israel was better than the current less visible relations; 5) businessnetworks would be expanded in the Middle East; 6) to attract Jewish-American investors or conglomerates to Indonesia; 7) to increase Indonesia's lobbying power in the international arena; 8) George Soros, theJewish international broker, would hopefully no longer ""disturb"" the economy; 9) the United States -- Israel's main ally -- would hopefully helpto maintain the Indonesian unitary state, in view of rumors that ""foreign powers"" had a part in trying to tear Indonesia apart.

Ties between Israel and Indonesia would also give at least three benefitsto Tel Aviv: first, Israel would gain larger political and economic access to Southeast Asia for free; second, Israel would increase its bargaining position to the Arab and Muslim World; third, such ties would ease Israel'spolitical and economic access to other Muslim regions as Indonesia has theworld's largest Muslim population.

However, the disadvantages to Indonesia would include: 1) widespread domestic controversy which would be counterproductive to national economic recovery; 2) the potential for a further split in society; 3) Gus Dur wouldbe considered to have ""betrayed"" Muslim political forces, especially those in the ""axis force"" which helped him become president; 4) suspicions wouldarise that Gus Dur was trying to shift public attention to the main reform agenda which is so far not settled (collusion, corruption, nepotism, Soeharto, the military's dual function, regional autonomy and so forth); 5)Indonesia would be considered -- especially by Middle East countries still rejecting Israel -- as being inconsistent with supporting the struggle of the Palestinian nation; 6)Indonesia would be considered to have betrayed its own Constitution which explicitly rejects all forms of colonialism on earth; 7) the potential disruption of economic and political ties between Indonesia and the Arab World.

Given the above factors, for further deliberation it would do no harm forthe Gus Dur government to look at the following aspects:

Firstly, the Palestine-Israel issue contains political and religious aspects, which needs extra caution in related policies;

Secondly, President Gus Dur and Foreign Minister Alwi should intensify dialog with various groups in society -- such as the House of Representatives, universities and mass organizations -- before deciding to embark on any formal ties with Israel. Even trade ties are considered a bridge to diplomatic ties, as in the case of Indonesia and the People's Republic of China.

Thirdly, we should first learn from other countries which have opened political and economic ties with Israel such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. Is it true that their economies improved after having ties with Israel?

Fourthly, let Palestine and Israel first settle their negotiations for peace, scheduled to reach the final stage in September 2000.

In this era of reform, the government should open itself to aspirations from the public. History shows that arrogance resulting from power frequently becomes a boomerang to the power itself.

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