Israel-UAE-Bahrain Deals: Questions over Indonesia and Malaysia’s Reactions

The recently-concluded peace agreements between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have elicited a delayed and carefully-phrased response from Indonesia and a relatively mild response from Malaysia. Indonesia’s growing relations with the UAE could be a factor in the delayed response. Malaysia’s reaction, however, is more difficult to fathom.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, and Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan  participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left), US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (right) smile as they participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognise Israel, at the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020. (Photo: Saul Loeb, AFP)
Giora Eliraz

Giora Eliraz

22 September 2020

On 15 September, Israel signed a peace treaty with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a peace declaration with Bahrain. The diplomatic breakthrough, which was brokered by Washington, is considered by opponents as a blow to the Palestinian cause, since it erodes a long-standing pan-Arab position that has stipulated the normalisation of relations with Israel predicated on its withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state. In this context, it is intriguing that Indonesia, which usually acts quickly to express its objections when it perceives there is damage being done to the Palestinian cause, has delayed its first official response this time. On 18 September, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah told reporters that Indonesia understands “the intention of the UAE and Bahrain to provide space for the relevant parties to negotiate and change the approach to solving the Palestinian issue through this agreement”. However, he added, the effectiveness of the agreement depends “to a large extent” on Israel’s commitment to respect it”. He stressed that the agreements will not change Indonesia’s support for the Palestinians and that for his country, and that the settlement of the Palestinian issue “needs to respect the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and internationally agreed parameters, including a two-state solution”.

The upward trajectory of Indonesia-UAE relations offers some thought-provoking clues here. In recent years Indonesia-UAE relations have expanded. During President Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) January 2020 visit to Abu Dhabi, both countries signed business deals worth a reported $23 billion. This is an important achievement for the UAE, which is pursuing a Look-East policy; the same applies to Jokowi’s administration, which aims to boost Indonesia’s economic growth. The UAE has also joined other international players to help fund the flagship project of Jokowi’s administration – the ambitious plan to relocate the capital city from Jakarta to the province of East Kalimantan on Borneo island. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and the UAE’s de facto leader, has even agreed to lead the new capital’s steering committee. Both countries, as per Bahrain, share a common interest to promote moderate Islamic values to counter increasing religious extremism. It also helps that the Indonesian president and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince have reportedly forged a firm friendship.

Malaysia may offer additional insights. A strong commitment to the Palestinian cause constitutes a cornerstone of its foreign policy. However, soon after the announcement on the Israel-UAE agreement, the Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said that Malaysia viewed the normalisation as the “sovereign right of the United Arab Emirates”. He reiterated the long-standing position of Malaysia that the creation of an independent Palestinian state through the two-state solution, based on pre-1967 borders, and with East Jerusalem as its capital, is the only viable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As to Bahrain joining the American-brokered move, Malaysia, as far as is known, has been silent.

The struggle of the Palestinians also resonates with Indonesia’s huge Muslim population, which feels a strong sense of Islamic solidarity with their Palestinian brethren. Writ large, the Palestinian struggle is largely perceived as a struggle of Islam.

In contrast to the Indonesian case, Malaysia’s bilateral relations with the UAE and Bahrain do not seem to offer any substantial explanatory keys. The political turbulence in Malaysia this year, which saw the ouster of Mahathir Mohamad from power in February, could offer some clues. In contrast to the official government response, Dr Mahathir, now a staunch opponent of the current administration, has described the Israel-UAE agreement as a step backwards for peace that would divide the Muslim world into “warring factions”. Dr Mahathir is widely known for his anti-Israelianti-semitic and anti-western rhetoric. Earlier this year, while still in power, he reacted to US President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by calling on the president to “resign to save America”. Arguably, Malaysia would have responded quite differently to the peace agreements if Dr Mahathir is still in power. 

While Malaysia’s relatively quick and somewhat mild response to the UAE-Israel deal could be explained in part by the departure of Dr Mahathir from the top of the political scene, Indonesia’s delayed response could be understood by a delicate dilemma it faces here. For years, Indonesia has demonstrated a high level of commitment to the Palestinian cause. Indonesian support of the rights of the Palestinian people is strongly tied with a national commitment to decolonisation and anti-colonialist sentiments. The struggle of the Palestinians also resonates with Indonesia’s huge Muslim population, which feels a strong sense of Islamic solidarity with their Palestinian brethren. Writ large, the Palestinian struggle is largely perceived as a struggle of Islam. Traditionally, such domestic political sentiments have had a strong impact on Indonesian foreign policy.

Indeed, the same could be said about Malaysia. There is a strong commitment to the Palestinian cause. Anti-Israeli emotions also dominate the political discourse in Malaysia. So perhaps Malaysia’s moderate response to the Israel-UAE agreement could be also explained by it still being considered a flawed democracy – that is, there may be less of a concern of a backlash by those who expected a strong official opposition to the agreement. Still, this does not fully explain why Kuala Lumpur responded to the Israel-UAE deal as it did. As for Indonesia, the governments of the democratic era have not sought to strongly control public opinion; rather, they seek to navigate carefully through it. Therefore, any move that might be interpreted as an erosion of state commitment to the Palestinian cause is likely to be vehemently opposed by political opponents, in particular, by radical Islamic groups which have a proven ability to incite the masses. Hence Indonesia’s response illustrates its need to maintain the balance between domestic political considerations and its commitment to the Palestinian cause with cooperation with the Arab Gulf countries and the need for economic growth and development.

Dr Giora Eliraz is a Research Associate at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is also a Research Associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking (FORTH) and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/143

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