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The exorbitant price of Trump’s attempt to secure Indonesian recognition of Israel

Posted By on January 15, 2021 @ 06:00

Of the many parting shots that US President Donald Trump’s administration has fired, few can have summed up its characteristics better than its reported [1] offer to increase its development financing to Indonesia by billions of dollars in exchange for Jakarta’s recognising Israel, which a senior Trump official, Adam Boehler, recently revealed in a speech in Jerusalem [2]. The diplomacy involved was shamelessly transactional. Its underlying premise seems to have been that the lure of money will always trump everything, including longstanding principles. It was not only ideologically blinkered but also strategically wrong-headed and politically inept. And it will likely end in failure.

When and how the administration originally made the offer to Indonesia remains shrouded in official secrecy. But it is easy to imagine its being floated during the two visits to Jakarta in 2020 [3] by Boehler, the CEO of the US International Development Financing Corporation (DFC), during which he met President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) among others. It is just as easy to speculate that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also raised it during his late October visit to Jakarta [4], given his ideological crusade on the Israeli question. And it would be hard to discount the possibility of its having come up during the meeting in Washington on 17 November [3] between Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Panjaitan and senior Trump officials, including Boehler, Jared Kushner (Boehler’s former college roommate) and Ivanka Trump, and in a subsequent meeting with Donald Trump himself, in which those officials also participated.

The lack of concrete details from both sides as to what was discussed in Luhut’s meetings has only invited speculation [5], including about whether Trump’s personal business dealings in Indonesia were a topic of conversation. However valid such speculation might be, Boehler’s revelation that Indonesia could get more development financing provided it joined the likes of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel offers grounds that Kushner and co. have used opportunities to promote a deal to key figures of Jokowi’s government, and even to the president himself. Interestingly, the Indonesian foreign ministry’s spokesperson hasn’t denied that the Trump administration had sought to induce such an agreement.

Luhut himself gushed about his meetings and a ‘letter of interest’ that emerged from his trip, which, he implied, would see the DFC injecting billions of dollars into Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund. Nothing from the DFC subsequently would suggest, however, that any such commitment was anything other than ‘preliminary’ and highly conditional.

Predictably, the Jokowi government has repudiated [6] any suggestion that it would abandon its longstanding policy on the question, reiterating that it would only recognise Israel once a separate Palestinian state had come into existence. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi [7] has expressly rejected reports from Jerusalem that talks between Israel and Indonesia about recognition were well advanced. Others in [8] Jakarta’s foreign policy circles have echoed this blanket rejection of the idea.

All this is not to rule out that the question has been the subject of debate in Jakarta, or to argue that Indonesia would be wrong ipso facto to do what Egypt did decades ago and, now, several others have done. The prospect of more financing would likely have had some appeal to the development-focused Jokowi. And at least one of his predecessors, Abdurrahman Wahid, was long ago interested in moving towards establishing diplomatic relations with a country he had visited several times before assuming the presidency.

But Jokowi and most of those around him would more than likely appreciate that persuading a majority of Indonesians to abandon the Palestinians in return for US dollars would be a far more fraught political task than persuading Luhut. Irrespective of the measures his administration has taken [9] to counter ‘anti-Pancasila’ activities and to cow radical Islamists in recent times [10], Jokowi is most unlikely to ignore the popular mood, which shows no sign of shifting towards the pragmatism that Luhut (a Christian and therefore possibly less invested in the issue than most) may have entertained. Few things would be more likely to incite opposition from even moderate Indonesian Muslims.

It is especially hard to see Jokowi being prepared to risk such a reaction considering that Trump, Kushner and (almost certainly) Boehler have such limited political lifespans (at least for the next four years). The political cost of being perceived as selling out the Palestinians would be a high price to pay in the most propitious of circumstances, let alone in exchange for a promise to consider additional development financing by an administration led by a person soon to have no authority to make it happen and with hardly a spotless record when it comes to honouring deals.

More to the point, the Trump administration’s behaviour again highlights how maladroit it has been with regard to Indonesia. Had the offer of more development financing come without such overt and politically insensitive conditionality, and if it had actually been implemented, it would have been strategically prudent. It would likely have registered positively with Jokowi and many other Indonesians. It would have countered China’s overtures to Indonesia, which have also been coming wrapped in billions of development financing but in a manner that has not disguised Beijing’s inbuilt quid pro quo or whitewashed its offences against Indonesian sovereignty in the South China Sea.

But now many Indonesians are likely to judge the ‘oleh-oleh’ [11] (or ‘souvenir’), as Luhut himself described the DFC letter of interest, from his Washington visit as inherently tainted and unacceptably conditional on Jakarta’s conceding its principles in the course of a Trumpian transaction. Rather than advancing US interests in relation to the most important geostrategic challenge facing America and its allies, the attempted pro-Israel deal may only have underscored to many Indonesians how untrustworthy and out of step the US is capable of being when it comes to Indonesia and much of Southeast Asia.

Like so many other of Trump’s actions, this one will at least have the merit of demonstrating to the incoming US administration what not to do when it comes to Indonesia and the region. President-elect Joe Biden and his secretary of state-designate, Antony Blinken, should certainly examine closely how to help Jokowi realise as many of his development goals as make sense and are achievable, including through greater flows of development financing. But they should do so with rational strategic objectives in mind, not US domestic political ones. And they should build their policies on realistic, evidence-based and well-considered expectations as to how those objectives can and are likely to be met.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-exorbitant-price-of-trumps-attempt-to-secure-indonesian-recognition-of-israel/

URLs in this post:

[1] reported: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-22/indonesia-could-get-billions-in-u-s-funding-to-join-israel-push

[2] a speech in Jerusalem: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-22/indonesia-could-get-billions-in-u-s-funding-to-join-israel-push?sref=BIAk2Vdl

[3] the two visits to Jakarta in 2020: https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-evaluating-2-billion-investment-indonesian-sovereign-wealth-fund

[4] visit to Jakarta: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/pompeo-hits-some-bum-notes-in-indonesia/

[5] speculation: https://thediplomat.com/2020/12/what-happened-during-trumps-unannounced-meeting-with-indonesian-minister/

[6] has repudiated: https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/indonesian/id-us-is-ties-12232020124705.html

[7] Retno Marsudi: https://www.kompas.com/global/read/2020/12/16/132711170/muncul-kabar-normalisasi-hubungan-indonesia-israel-kemenlu-langsung

[8] Others in: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20201229-indonesia-will-never-normalise-relations-with-israel/

[9] has taken: https://www.kompas.com/tag/anti-pancasila

[10] to cow radical Islamists in recent times: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/12/30/government-bans-fpi-and-its-activities.html

[11] ‘oleh-oleh’: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/11/24/luhut-waxes-lyrical-about-white-house-visit-jared-kushner-in-online-post.html

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