Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa could have avoided the humiliation caused by Israel’s decision to ban him from Ramallah had he consulted senior and experienced Indonesian diplomats and officials who have been dealing with the Palestinian problem, or recalled the history of the Indonesia-Israeli relationship.
The timing of the Non-Aligned Movement conference was also not right given Israel and the West are dealing with a potential war with Iran, and Indonesia is strengthening its involvement in the G-20.
Unfortunately, Indonesia was grouped with Malaysia, Bangladesh, Algeria and Cuba, which do not have relations with Israel. Besides, Ramallah is only recognized as the capital city by the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority, a decision rejected by the Hamas Palestinians.
Unofficial relations between Israel and Indonesia date back to the 1970s, beginning with intelligence cooperation. During those days, both countries shared intelligence information and engaged in counterterrorism activities.
This was why there were hardly any terrorist threats in Indonesia during the reign of Suharto. Commando training and cooperation was also established under the late Gen. L.B. Moerdani, who was commander of the armed forces.
Over time, and with Palestinian issues dragging on for decades with no solution in sight, Israel developed an interest in establishing official relations with Indonesia, a country with the largest Muslim population in the world and an influential country in its own right.
The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Jakarta in 1993 and met then-President Suharto in Jakarta at his private Cendana residence. The two leaders shared views, discussed Mideast peace plans and sought ways of establishing relations. It was Suharto who told Rabin that relations should begin with trade and commerce.
Over the years, Indonesian passports have stopped carrying the stipulation restricting visits to Israel. Thousands of Indonesian pilgrims have visited Jerusalem. Israel travel brochures have also been published in Bahasa Indonesia.
When Suharto visited New York in October 1995 to attend the UN General Assembly, he stayed on the 41st floor of the posh Waldorf Astoria under the close guard of Lt. Col. Syafrie Syamsudin, who was at that time the head of the elite Group A presidential security forces.
Rabin met Suharto after a brief scuffle between Syafrie’s men and Israeli intelligence, but since both parties were trained under the same military intelligence doctrine, it only took seconds for the two leaders to arrange a half-hour meeting without a security fuss. Both generals updated each other on prospects of diplomatic relations.
When French President Jacques Chirac and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora called President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in August 2006, asking Indonesia to contribute peacekeeping forces under the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Yudhoyono ordered the retired Lt. Gen. T.B. Silalahi to lobby the Israelis so that Indonesian blue berets would be stationed in the war zone.
The Israelis, acknowledging the importance of Indonesia, immediately agreed. Both Yudhoyono and Silalahi were former UN peacekeepers. Yudhoyono served in Bosnia-Herzegovina while Silalahi served in the Middle East.
During Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid’s time as president, he envisioned diplomatic relations with Israel. Gus Dur served with the Jerusalem-based Simon Peres Peace Institute before becoming president in 1999. His reasoning: If Indonesia wants to play a role in the Mideast peace process, it must recognize Israel and then open diplomatic relations. His rationale: How can one be a mediator without recognizing both feuding parties?
Indonesia’s foreign policy could have been smarter. How can it be an “honor” — as Marty claimed it was this week — for a country to be thrown out of a conference by a nation that recognizes the importance of establishing relations?
Yanto Soegiarto is the managing editor of Globe Asia,a sister publication of the Jakarta Globe.