In Indonesia, Israelis talk technology as prospects dim for diplomatic relations

Business and social connections bring Israelis to Jakarta, where government tolerates contact while maintaining distance from Abraham Accords

Samuel Neufeld

Indonesians and Israelis mix at rooftop gathering in Jakarta.

On a rooftop in Jakarta in mid-July, a group of Israelis and Indonesians tried to break through the political divide between their countries and talked about doing business deals together.

Many knew each other from chatting over Zoom for the previous three months. They were enrolled with the Jerusalem-based Israel-Asia Center in a project that encourages Israelis and Indonesians to engage even though their countries don’t have diplomatic ties.

It’s an improvisational approach that enables Israel to develop relationships in a region filled with political obstacles, according to Emanuel Shahaf, one of the Israeli leaders of the Jakarta visit and vice chairman of the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce, which doesn’t have an official Indonesian partner.

“Nobody said you must have diplomatic relations to have a binational chamber of commerce,” Shahaf told The Circuit. “We’re not impinging on Indonesian sovereignty in any way.”

Indonesia, the world’s largest predominantly Muslim nation, has been mentioned as a country that may normalize relations with Israel, following in the steps of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, which signed the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020. Despite annual trade between the two countries exceeding $500 million, some of it reportedly in weapons, Jakarta has stopped short of establishing formal diplomatic ties.

On that sweltering summer evening in sub-equatorial Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city, the half-dozen Israelis — who were required to have non-Israeli second passports to enter the country — mixed with Indonesian business leaders, university presidents and entrepreneurs at the rooftop reception, according to those in attendance. During a five-day tour of the country, they navigated the traffic-choked streets of Jakarta, whose population exceeds 10 million — greater than the entire population of Israel. They visited Indonesian startups and toured some of the country’s best-known cultural sites. Also on the itinerary was a walking tour through an urban slum known as a kampung and visits to observe social impact initiatives, such as financial training for women in a rural area south of the capital.

Given the diplomatic sensitivities, the Israel-Asia Center assured Indonesian participants that names wouldn’t be published without their express permission. It also required all participants, speakers and partners in the program to sign a non-disclosure agreement “in order to create a confidential safe space where all those engaged in the program can do so openly and freely,” the center’s website says.

The online program, which is conducted in part on Zoom and draws a combined 100 people from Israel and Indonesia, “is an opportunity for participants from both sides to dip their toe in the water,” Rebecca Zeffert, the Israel-Asia Center’s founder and executive director, said in a statement issued after the group returned to Israel. Meeting each other in Jakarta, she said, “took these relationships to a whole new level.”

With 275 million inhabitants spread across 17,500 islands, Indonesia dwarfs Israel, which has a population of 9.5 million. It is the world’s fourth most populous nation and Southeast Asia’s biggest economy. Indonesia currently chairs the G20 international forum, while Jakarta is the host city for ASEAN — the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The country has flirted with closer ties to Israel, especially in the 1993 post-Oslo peace agreement period, when former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited President Suharto in Jakarta. Six years later, Suharto’s successor, Abdurrahman Wahid, said he was interested in establishing economic ties with Israel but not diplomatic relations.

That’s been the policy since, most recently articulated in January by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah, who said private interactions between Israelis and Indonesians would not be forbidden.

“Between governments, let me emphasize there are no formal interactions,” Faizasyah told reporters in a virtual news conference. “Please differentiate things that are official in nature, and business relations or people-to-people, which are out of the government’s hands.”

Shahaf, who became a business consultant specializing in Southeast Asia after an Israeli government career, said Indonesia presents Israeli businesses with “tremendous untapped potential” as a customer for products ranging from cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and distance-learning to water technologies and health care.

Despite positive signs, such as a meeting at a conference in Bahrain between Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata, Shahaf said he sees little likelihood of Indonesia normalizing ties with Israel anytime soon. That derives mostly from popular sentiment in the country in favor of the Palestinians and Indonesia’s past as a Dutch colony. “They view what we do as colonialism,” he said.

Israeli businessman Avraham Lifshitz, a first-timer to Indonesia, said he was apprehensive about visiting the country and concerned his Orthodox Jewish clothing could provoke hostility. In public areas, he said, he wore a hat instead of a yarmulke, but was struck by the warmth demonstrated by the Indonesians.

“In private, being overtly Jewish wasn’t a hindrance to interacting with Indonesians. It was an object of curiosity,” said Lifshitz, a consultant to Abu Dhabi-based DANA Venture Builder, which promotes “desert tech” startups that are led by women. “Their questions came from a place of genuine curiosity and left me hopeful that people-to-people connections will serve as the foundations for bridges between Israel and Indonesia in the future.”

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