Mon, 08 Nov 1999

Discourse on Israel ties

President Abdurrahman Wahid has created a political minefield for himself by announcing that he is forging ahead with plans to open commercial ties with Israel. While Abdurrahman, a noted Muslim scholar, thrived on controversy before he became head of state, this issue is so complex and loaded with emotion that he should tread with greater care.

Abdurrahman's proposal, disclosed only a day after he was elected President on Oct. 21, is a significant departure from Indonesia's traditional policy toward the Jewish state. Rather than rushing to incorporate commercial ties with Israel into his administration's foreign policy, he first should allow public discourse on the issue to secure widespread public support. He certainly cannot pursue a foreign policy that does not enjoy popular support.

In the past, principle and a dose of pragmatism have guided Indonesia's foreign policy. The preamble to the Constitution and the 10 Bandung Principles underscored the country's active and independent foreign policy since its independence in 1945. Pragmatism, or national interests, determined policy priorities.

These principles led Indonesia to remain nonaligned throughout much of the Cold War and to forge solidarity with developing countries in various international fora. With pragmatism, particularly in trade and investment matters, Indonesia cultivated mutually beneficial ties with major Western countries, including the United States. The combination of principle and pragmatism also has allowed Indonesia to pursue its one-China policy while at the same time enjoying a brisk trade with Taiwan.

While one cannot resist making the analogy with Taiwan, any ties with Israel, including commercial, cannot simply be explained by principle and pragmatism alone, as Abdurrahman has attempted to do. Any move toward the Jewish state will trigger the emotions of some Muslims in the country, who see this as a religious issue.

In crafting their Middle East policy, Abdurrahman and Minister of Foreign Affairs Alwi Shihab should take into account the feelings of the people; winning the academic debate, a tall order in itself, is not sufficient.

Abdurrahman and Alwi, both prominent scholars, have constructed their argument for trade ties with Israel on three premises. First, commercial ties with Israel will allow Indonesia to reach out to major American corporations, most of which they say are controlled by Jews. Second, ties with Israel will let Indonesia play a more direct and active role in the Middle East peace process. Third, Indonesia has full diplomatic relations with China, as it did with the Soviet Union, a communist giant which tramples religion. Abdurrahman contends that if religious principles guided foreign policy, then Indonesia should have ties with Israel, which respects religion, and not with China.

The President has not yet won the academic debate. Far from it, since we are still in the early stages of this particular discourse. His detractors say the plan to open commercial ties with Israel violates the principles that have guided Indonesia's foreign policy in the past. They doubt whether trade ties with Israel would give Indonesia significantly greater access to American corporations, and they question whether Indonesia could become an effective player in the Middle East peace process.

The biggest challenge facing the government, however, is in winning the emotional debate. This will take time, and patience and perseverance are of the utmost importance. The President cannot ignore public opinion, particularly with an issue as emotional as this one.

With the President determined to proceed rapidly, the debate over his plan to open trade ties with Israel will intensify, sapping much of the nation's attention and energy. The question is whether we can afford this at a time when there are other, more pressing problems facing the country. Abdurrahman and Alwi have spent a great deal of their time since assuming their positions explaining their Israeli plan. The country already is consumed by the issue, ignoring other urgent problems which deserve our attention.

In the past, the visionary Abdurrahman often was criticized for being too ahead of his time on a number of issues. Whether his plan to open commercial ties with Israel falls into this category, the best course the President can pursue at this stage is to encourage public discourse and move forward only once he has received the public's approval.