Reaching out to country with world's largest Muslim populace

Netanyahu: We want ‘excellent relations’ with Indonesia

Addressing Christian journalists, PM vows to appoint special emissary to the Christian world, calls B’Tselem a ‘disgrace’ and backs Likud minister’s handling of the Alqasem case

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Christian Media Summit in Jerusalem, October 14, 2018. (Haim Tzach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Christian Media Summit in Jerusalem, October 14, 2018. (Haim Tzach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said he wanted to promote diplomatic ties with Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.

“Indonesia is very, very important for us. It’s a very important country. It’s one of the last countries on earth that doesn’t have an open and robust relationship with Israel. Most countries do,” he said at an international conference for Christian journalists in Jerusalem.

“Indonesia is over 200 million people. It has Muslims. It has tens of millions of Christians. We would like to seem them here. We would like to have excellent relations with them,” he said.

Netanyahu made the remark in response to a question by Monique Rijkers, a Christian pro-Israel activist from Jakarta, who implored the prime minister to open his country’s borders to Indonesian believers so that they can freely visit the Holy Land. She was referring to a brief period earlier this year during which Jakarta and Jerusalem barred visitors from each other.

“I will work on the visa, I will see what I can do,” Netanyahu said.

Earlier this month, Israel reportedly sent aid to Indonesia following a devastating earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 1,400 people in the Pacific island nation. However, due to the sensitive diplomatic nature of relations between Jakarta and Jerusalem, the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the matter.

Indonesian Christian pilgrims sing before a baptismal ceremony in Jordan river at the Yardenit baptismal site in Israel, March 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

Netanyahu on Sunday also hinted at budding diplomatic ties with Muslim-majority nations in Africa, saying that many countries on the continent are interested in cooperating with the Jewish state on fighting Islamic terrorism. This fact, he said, “paves the way for additional countries to recognize the State of Israel, and I think you will be hearing about them very soon,” he said.

Addressing the second annual Christian Media Summit, which is organized by the Government Press Office, the prime minister also stressed the importance of Israel’s relations with Christian supporters, and indicated that he will appoint a special Israeli government emissary to the Christian world.

“I think it’s a great idea. I think I’m going to do it,” he said, after a journalist made the suggestion. Netanyahu also jotted down the idea.

“Israel is the only country that protects the human rights of all. We protect the religious rights of all,” he said. “We don’t just protect Christian sites — we protect Christian people. Christians should enjoy all freedoms to worship as they please in the Middle East and anywhere else. And the only place in the Middle East where they can do so is Israel. We have no better friends in the world than our Christian friends.”

Netanyahu also briefly addressed various other topics. For instance, he denounced the dovish Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, whose executive director Hagai El-Ad is set to criticize Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians at the United Nations Security Council later this week.

“How do I define B’Tselem? A disgrace! That’s how I’d define them,” he said in response to a question.

Netanyahu backed Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s hardline policies toward Lara Alqasem, the American would-be student at Hebrew University, currently being held at Ben-Gurion airport due to her alleged allegiance to the anti-Israel boycott movement.

US student Lara Alqasem sits for a hearing at the Tel Aviv District Court on October 11, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“Every country, and every democracy, and many democracies, have special arrangements where they decide who to let in and who not to let in,” he said. “If you come in and you are virulently against America and you try to come to the United States, there’s a good chance you won’t be let in if people know that in advance. That’s also true of many of the European democracies. It’s true of the democracy called Israel.”

Netanyahu added that he fully trusts that Erdan “has examined” the matter.

“It’s under the decision now of the Israeli Supreme Court so I’m not going to get into that,” he said. “And they’ll decide whether they handle it or not. If they handle it – we’ll see how it develops. If they don’t handle it – she’ll be deported.”

Earlier on Sunday, Alqasem appealed to the Supreme Court to hear her appeal to be allowed to stay in the country.

The prime minister also made his first public comment on the mysterious disappearance in Istanbul of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying he had no information about his fate.

“I know about the Khashoggi affair as much as you do, and no more,” he said.

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