Netanyahu calls for normalizing ties with Indonesia

PM tells visiting Indonesian journalists establishing a diplomatic link with world’s largest Muslim country would open up vast trade opportunities

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a visiting delegation of Indonesian journalists at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 28, 2016. (Haim Tzach, GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a visiting delegation of Indonesian journalists at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 28, 2016. (Haim Tzach, GPO)

As Israel increasingly looks to the East for security and trade cooperation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Monday for the establishment of official diplomatic relations with the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia.

“It’s time for there to be official relations between Indonesia and Israel. We have many opportunities for bilateral cooperation, especially in the fields of water technology and high-tech,” he told a visiting delegation of Indonesian journalists on Monday.

The brokering of ties with Indonesia and its population of some 250 million Muslims would be a major coup for Netanyahu and his bid to foster deeper ties with moderate Arab states and Asian economic powerhouses. However, Jakarta is a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and is not thought to be considering upping its relationship with Jerusalem.

Netanyahu said the fostering of ties would come as part of shifting allegiances driven by anti-terror efforts and economic factors, hailing growing yet secret ties between Israel and the Arab world.

“It’s time to change our relationship, because the reasons preventing it are no longer relevant,” he said, adding that Jerusalem and Jakarta were “allies” against the common threat of terrorism.

The prime minister told the delegation — visiting Israel as guests of the Foreign Ministry — “I have quite a few Facebook friends who are Indonesian.”

Earlier this month, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told Knesset members that Israel had secret ties with Jakarta, while defending Jerusalem’s decision to block Indonesia’s foreign minister from entering the West Bank because she did not plan to visit Jerusalem during her visit to the region.

Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi had been slated to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki to inaugurate an honorary consulate in Ramallah, but was forced to move the meeting to Amman.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic Indonesia)
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Indonesia)

Marsudi’s unsuccessful visit to Ramallah came a week after Indonesia held the 5th Extraordinary Organization of Islamic Cooperation Summit on Palestine and Al-Quds Al-Sharif, which discussed the possibility of boycotting Israeli products made in the West Bank.

Hotovely told Knesset members that a senior Israeli official traveled to Indonesia ahead of the visit in an attempt to coordinate the trip and avert a public row.

Despite the dearth of official diplomatic ties, Hotovely revealed the two countries maintain covert bilateral ties “on a range of issues.”

“There have been secret contacts with Indonesia, with which we don’t have diplomatic relations, and there were understandings that were rudely broken and so we blocked her entry,” Hotovely said. “This was a breach of diplomatic protocol, and the most honorable thing to do is to respect the protocols, so when you break them don’t be surprised that you bar yourself from visiting the [Palestinian Authority].”

In recent years, Indonesia and Israel have signed a number of trade agreements aimed at encouraging the flow of goods between the two countries.

Indonesia exported over $100 million (NIS 387 million) worth of goods to Israel in 2015 and imported nearly $80 million (NIS 310 million) in goods from Israel, according to the Jakarta Post.

According to a 2014 BBC poll, approximately 75 percent of Indonesians hold a negative view of Israel.

Raphael Ahren and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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