Thu, 26 Oct 2000

Indonesian foreign policy inconsistent, says expert

Indonesia recently joined those countries who have condemned Israel for its troops' brutality against Palestinians. This stance was adopted, however, following a period of what critics said was official foot-dragging because of President Abdurrahman Wahid's reluctance. Political observer and lecturer Mochtar Mas'oed at the Yogyakarta-based Gadjah Mada University scrutinized shortcomings in Indonesia's foreign policy.

Question: Palestinian diplomats criticized the President's stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What is your opinion?

The government may have really wanted to have stayed neutral and not disturb the U.S.-led negotiations, surely with some consideration of the government's own interests in reaching such a stance. Furthermore, Gus Dur (the President) is a pluralist, so it is understandable if he wished to remain neutral in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This, of course, should be differentiated from its stance on the violence between Israeli troops and the Palestinians which killed about 150 people. The government should certainly condemn Israel for human rights violations.

Indeed, Indonesia is known for inconsistencies in its foreign policy. In the 1970s, when the Arab countries slapped oil embargoes against the U.S. and Netherlands, we sold the commodity to the two countries in huge quantities. We took advantage of the embargo. Which was why we failed to elicit Arab support over the East Timor case back then.

Do you think the President was biased because of his membership of the Shimon Peres' Foundation?

The foundation was actually established to promote peace between Palestine and Israel by (disseminating the understanding) that not all Jews support Zionism.

It is Gus Dur's right, as a pluralist, to join the organization because of his belief that all human beings are essentially the same. Besides, his record as a pluralist is actually longer than his record as a politician or a president.

You have said that Indonesian foreign policy is often used by politicians and the government to gain political benefit. Could you elaborate?

It is undeniable that those who strongly condemn Israel have hidden political motives. They (aim for) support not only from Muslims in the country but also from nationalists, who consider this issue as an example of the struggle against the world's conservative power.

Remember that not all Palestinians are Muslim. There are Christians too. We need to remind our leaders that the suffering of the Palestinians is too great to be used as a mere political tool.

We have never separated Zionism from Judaism, a confusion which benefits politicians.

In Indonesian Muslim politics, the term Jewish is often linked with Zionism -- which is an ultranationalist ideology just like the chauvinism which existed during the Nazi period in Germany. So if we mention Jewish or Israel, there is always the negative connotation of Zionism -- which considers the Jews as a superior nation. This has racialist and expansionist overtones.

That this is the case may be because Indonesian Muslims already have a negative impression of the Jewish people because of what the Koran says. Literal interpretation (of the Koran) often casts the Jews as examples of what is bad.

But there is a diversity of people in Israel, and they can't all be lumped together as Zionists. There are actually groups in Israel who oppose Zionism. However, it would certainly be less interesting for politicians seeking popular support to speak about the diversity of Israelis.

In the long term, it should be clear who our enemy is in this regard: the Jews, Zionism or Israel? Currently we are condemning the aggressive behavior of a state which has resulted in victims.

... Our protest against Israel must be really directed to supporting those victims. It must not be used to mobilize domestic political support. Such a protest must be raised against any country conducting aggression.

Do you share the feeling that anti-Israeli actions could spread and give rise to tension between Muslims and non-Muslims?

That would be strange because again, the Palestinians we are standing up for include Christians.

The troublesome part of all this is the xenophobia which could arise in any anti-Israeli protest. This could become excessive. Even though it refers mainly to anti-U.S. feeling, it could develop into anti-any party relating to Israel.

The government now depends on investors, some of whom are said to support Israel.

Ideally there should be a separation between our search for economic support and violations of human rights by Israel. We must condemn Israel although we should still continue our approaches to international donors.

It is true that many parties who have the funds and resources we need are mostly biased towards Israel. But formal and informal international fund managers will understand if Indonesia feels it needs to denounce Israel.

Gus Dur's government has stated its plan to open trade ties with Israel. What do you think?

The government was right when it stated it planned trade ties with Israel. It shows that the government has the freedom to take up a stance in relation to any country. It also directly approached China for the same purpose.

Having trade ties with a country doesn't mean we can't criticize it when it's in the wrong. Indonesia has often protested the actions of America, Britain and the Netherlands.

Arab countries also have ties with Israel (as indicated) by Israeli products on sale in Arab countries.

Can we separate domestic political influences from foreign policy?

It is, relatively speaking, possible, but no longer so in Indonesia.

In the initial years of independence, foreign policy was used as a means to defend the country's territory. Even now we do this regarding the issues of Aceh, Irian Jaya and East Timor.

Foreign policy has also long been used in the domestic struggle for power. (First president) Bung Karno used foreign policy to settle conflicts between himself, the army and the Indonesian Communist Party by diverting attention to confrontation with Malaysia.

And foreign policy has also been used to support economic development; which is now being done by President Abdurrahman Wahid.

The conclusion is that Indonesia can so far only take care of its own homework, and cannot do much about the region. Bung Karno used to have ambitions of remaking the world order through NEFO (New Emerging Forces) and other designs.

We may want to share a role in ensuring the world's peace but most of our time and energy has been used up in resolving domestic problems. (Asip A. Hasani)