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Israeli delegation pays rare visit to Indonesia

While Jakarta is reluctant to advance diplomatic ties with Jerusalem, there is room to expand trade and economic relations.
BAY ISMOYO/AFP via Getty Images

An Israeli delegation visited Muslim-majority Indonesia in late July. The organizer, the Israel-Asia Center, said the trip was intended to explore the potential for bilateral connections through investment, start-up ventures and social impact initiatives.

As the two countries do not maintain diplomatic relations and Israelis rarely receive visas to visit Indonesia, the Israeli delegation was composed of people with dual citizenship. Israel does offer visas under certain conditions for Indonesian Christian and Muslim pilgrim groups wishing to visit the Holy Land.

The Israel-Asia Center is an Israeli nonprofit organization that runs a range of leadership programs in a wide array of sectors, including business, investment, media, education, government, diplomacy, tech, health care and international development. It operates not only in Asian countries with whom Israel has diplomatic ties but also in some countries that have no diplomatic ties with Israel, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. To date, it has secured over $250 million in investment between Israel and Asia.

Rebecca Zeffert, the center's founder and executive director, told Al-Monitor that the Israeli delegation to Indonesia was comprised of investors, heads of chambers of commerce, tech professionals and innovators. Most of them, she noted, are alumni of the center’s Israel-Indonesia Futures program. She said, “While in Jakarta, the delegates met Indonesian business leaders, university presidents, entrepreneurs and investors. They also visited start-up hubs and accelerators.”

Israel and Indonesia have taken a few steps toward diplomatic rapprochement but each time, the Indonesian leadership backed away, saying that relations would be established after advancements on the Palestinian issue.

Former Trade and Industry Minister Ran Cohen is familiar with Israel-Indonesia relations. After serving as minister, in the year 2,000, he was appointed head of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce. Cohen told Al-Monitor that in the seven years he headed the chamber, he met quite a few Indonesians in Israel or when he traveled to Singapore.

“I really hoped that Indonesian people I encountered — peace-loving and very attached to the Holy Land — would help in creating a bridge of peace between us, Israelis and the Palestinians," he said. "I knew that if the majority-Muslim Indonesia would initiate such peace moves, many Israelis and also Palestinians could be convinced to choose the path of peace over the path of killing and violence. Unfortunately, at the time, these contacts yielded little in that direction.”

After the 2020 signature of the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain, the Emirates, Morocco and Sudan, some reports claimed Indonesia would be next to normalize ties with Israel and that the Trump administration offered Jakarta billions of dollars in additional US financial support to Indonesia if it joined the Abraham Accords.

US Secretary General Antony Blinken raised the issue with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi when they met in Jakarta December 2021. Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah confirmed in a statement at the time that diplomatic ties with Israel were discussed in the meeting by Blinken, but said that Marsudi insisted Indonesia’s position remain consistent with the Palestinian cause.

On Jan. 25, then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid raised the issue publicly. Speaking on Israel's Army Radio, Lapid said Israel was looking to "expand the Abraham Accords to additional countries" beyond Bahrain, the Emirates, Morocco and Sudan. "If you're asking me what the important countries that we're looking at are, Indonesia is one of them, Saudi Arabia of course, but these things take time," he said.

Zeffert notes that while Israel and Indonesia do not maintain diplomatic ties, bilateral trade is expanding. “Currently, direct and indirect Israel-Indonesia trade comes to about $500 million per year, not including defense exports or investments made by Indonesians in Israeli tech. It does include export of telecoms, smart agriculture and tourism.”

She believes the potential for more Israel-Indonesia trade is tremendous in sectors such as education, fintech, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, mobility, health care, food tech and water technologies. “At the end of the day, with or without diplomatic ties, partnerships are all about people. I see our role as creating familiarity and building trust between people. We are providing the guidance and the platform for these people-to-people interactions and partnerships, which are paving the way to more normalized relations between Israel and Indonesia ahead of formal ties,” says Zeffert.

Emanuel Shahaf is the vice chair of the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce. When the delegation returned to Israel, he told the press that the visit was different from previous delegations to Indonesia because it followed months of trust-building meetings via Zoom, making face-to-face meetings in Jakarta more productive. It also gave participants the chance to consider more and bigger projects. The initiative, he said, “enables a slow and controlled build-up of relationships between vastly different cultures. By the time we actually meet, apprehensions and concerns have mostly been dealt with and relatively smooth sailing lies ahead.”

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