The decision by the United States to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has inflamed tensions between the Islamic world and the West. In Indonesia, thousands have taken to the streets to demand a reversal of the decision and the acknowledgement of Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.
When news of President Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban and other inflammatory comments were made public, they barely created a ripple. But this move had an immediate impact on the reputation of the US, as well as Trump’s. And Indonesia’s leadership does not appear interested in salvaging it anytime soon.
For the world’s largest Muslim majority country, a geographical distance from the Middle East is secondary to an enduring belief that the Islamic world must support its own populations.
As a result, Palestinian independence has been a long-running foreign policy priority for the county and has been elevated under the leadership of President Joko Widodo. In 2015, he hosted the Asia-Africa Conference, bringing together leaders from across the two continents in one of his first major world stage appearances.
It was here he demonstrated his personal passion for the Palestinian cause by leading a special declaration in support of independence. He also played host to a meeting on the sidelines with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation member states on the issue.
Indonesia and Israel do not have formal diplomatic ties, although the country opened a consulate in Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem, in 2016. This was widely seen as a possible minor upgrade in relations.
But following civil society calls to boycott Israeli-made products in Indonesia, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was denied permission to pass through Israeli airspace, forcing her to inaugurate the mission from Jordan.
The move came a week after Jakarta hosted an OIC summit focusing on the conflict.
“Indonesia’s support for the fight of the Palestinian people will never cease and we move forward one step today with the inauguration of Indonesia’s honorary consulate in Ramallah,” she said at the time as reported by Indonesia’s State Secretariat.
Israel’s regional trade mission is run out of Singapore but big business enjoys lucrative, if not quiet, ties in Indonesia. Israeli technology firms, particularly in the agriculture sector, have been welcomed to the country, the Foreign Trade Conference in Tel Aviv was told last year.
But neither parties are looking to highlight the relationship, with a BBC World Service poll in 2014 finding three quarters of Indonesians view Israel in a poor light.
The response from the Indonesian administration amid this latest development was swift, particularly notable for Widodo, who typically appears mild-mannered. Speaking from the Bogor Presidential Palace just outside Jakarta on the day after the Dec 6 announcement in the US, the president slammed the move as a “threat to stability.”
He said he would explore other avenues in which to pressure the Trump administration to reverse its decision, including approaching the United Nations’ General Assembly, local media reported.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, meanwhile, used her appearance at the Bali Democracy Forum that weekend in Jakarta to highlight the country’s stance. She faced media wrapped in a keffiyeh-like scarf adorned with Palestinian flags as an unambiguous marker of Indonesian support.
“I stand here wearing the Palestinian scarf to show the strong commitment of Indonesia, of the people of Indonesia, to always be with the Palestinian people, for their rights,” she told local media. “Indonesia will always stand with Palestine.”
After attending an emergency summit of the OIC in Istanbul last week, Widodo returned to Jakarta and stepped up his rhetoric. He called on the rest of the world to rethink ties with Israel and to recognise Palestinian autonomy. He also encouraged all Muslims across the world to lobby their own governments in support of Palestine.
Back in Jakarta, near daily demonstrations at the US Embassy in Central Jakarta brought much of the city to a standstill before culminating in a massive rally attended by more than 80,000 on Sunday around the National Monument or Monas.
The demonstration marked 11 days since the announcement, and was held concurrently with other rallies in Malaysia and across the Muslim world.
The diverse crowd included thousands of young families and children decked out in Palestinian flags, and other paraphernalia. Alongside them was a darker element recently seen at demonstrations against former Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama. They held up banners calling for the establishment of a caliphate and the outlaw of the Shia branch of Islam in Indonesia.
Speaking on the sidelines of the The Future of Palestine event in the capital on Friday, former deputy foreign minister and former ambassador to the United States, Dino Patti Djalal, said Indonesians largely feel a sense of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
“It is part of our folklore,” he said, “and for the Islamic community, every time at prayers the Palestine issue is always mentioned and there’s a feeling of solidarity.”
While the nuances of Middle Eastern geopolitics may not be understood by the average Indonesian, a long history of its own independence fight and mythologising has brought the plight of the Palestinians home.
“(Supporters) don’t really understand the whole picture in terms of the dynamics, but they know the Palestinians are oppressed and suffering,” Djalal said. “There’s a sense of emotional and political solidarity.”
At the event, the Jordanian Ambassador to Indonesia, Walid Al Hadid, reflected on the importance of Indonesian leadership in the global campaign for Palestinian sovereignty.
Indonesian leaders had taken up the fight as staunchly as those in the Gulf states, he said, particularly Marsudi. She had contacted US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson three times by phone and the US Ambassador to Indonesia, Joseph Donovan Jr, twice in an effort to have the decision Jerusalem decision reversed.
Al Hadid also praised Widodo’s initial press release and said: “Palestine is not a foreign policy issue. It is a domestic issue for Indonesians, Jordanians and Palestinians. Everybody has a stake.”