Prime Minster Scott Morrison announced on 16 October that his government is considering recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the Australian embassy. The suggestion drew a strong reaction from Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who said that the move was a slap in the face to Indonesia on the Palestinian issue, and warned that it would affect bilateral relations. Reports also surfaced after the announcement that Indonesia had threatened to review its position on the long-awaited Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA).
For many Indonesians, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a sensitive topic, with the vast majority strongly supporting the Palestinian side, primarily due to a common religion and shared experiences. In both countries, the majority of the population follows the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam. Indonesia also has a history of facing oppression, having experienced Dutch colonial rule and Japanese occupation. From the perspective of many Indonesians, their Muslim brothers and sisters are being oppressed by a non-Muslim power, just as they were in the past. That shared sense of history and beliefs has created a close people-to-people bond between Indonesians and Palestinians. That bond was especially clear during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, where the cheers for the Palestinian athletic team from the Indonesian crowd were beaten only by the cheers for their home team.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi seems to share that view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has made support for Palestine an integral part of her ministry’s agenda. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a Solidarity Week for Palestine (SWP) on 13-17 October, where Marsudi met with her Palestinian counterpart to pledge further support. It is no surprise then, that Marsudi had a strong reaction to Morrison’s comments that Australia may move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. Indonesia and Australia hold opposing views when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Australia is one of the fifty countries that do not recognise the state of Palestine and Indonesia is one of the 34 countries that do not recognise the state of Israel.
The recent comments will have little, if any, direct implications for the Indonesian-Australian relationship. The IA-CEPA deal will not be affected, as confirmed by Indonesian Trade Minister Arrmanatha Nasir, who still hopes that the deal can be signed by the end of this year. What may be affected, however, are government-to-government relations. Mr Morrison started off on a strong footing with Indonesia, opting to go ahead with a planned visit to Jakarta that was scheduled to take place less than a week after he took office. With the recent comments on Jerusalem, however, the Prime Minister seemed to take a step back. In so doing, he shed light on the ideological and cultural differences between Australia and Indonesia that define the, often rocky, relationship.
Enhancing the relationship with Indonesia is a vitally important component of Australia’s geopolitical outlook. In the past, Indonesia has depended on Australia for foreign aid and development assistance. Today, however, the relationship is changing. Australia is becoming less significant to Indonesian interests, while it remains vitally important for Canberra to maintain strong linkages between the two. In that respect, the Australian Government should be careful not to place any unnecessary strain on the relationship by emphasising existing differences in foreign policy.
Regardless of Australia’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the government should strive to be seen as having an independent outlook on foreign affairs. It should be seen as taking into consideration the interests of its neighbours and how those interests affect Australia’s priorities, rather than be perceived as echoing the views of the United States.