PM Naftali Bennett (r) and FM Yair Lapid at a press conference, Nov. 6, 2021. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL) (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)
Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett

Antony Blinken’s overtures to Indonesia suggest the White House is more actively building on the Abraham Accords than previously thought.

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the possibility of normalized Israel-Indonesia relations in recent talks with Indonesian officials in Jakarta last week, Axios reported on Thursday.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim state, with more than 273 million people. Peace would open up a major South East Asian market for Israeli business. It would also be a significant blow against Palestinian efforts to isolate Israel.

Blinken’s overture also suggests that the White House is more actively building on the Abraham Accords than previously thought.

Prior to the Abraham Accords, prevailing diplomatic thought was that the Muslim world would make peace with Israel only after the Palestinian conflict was resolved. The Trump administration took an opposite approach: that Israel will be more confident to make peace with the Palestinians after it feels more secure in its relations with the rest of the world.

While the Biden campaign praised the Abraham Accords in 2020, his administration’s support has been lukewarm. In July, the U.S. froze the Abraham Fund, which was intended to promote economic cooperation among the peace partners.

Asked to comment, State Department spokesman Ned Price told Axios, “We are always exploring additional opportunities for normalization, but we’ll leave those discussions behind closed doors until the right moment.” Axios added that Israeli and Indonesian officials declined to comment.

A senior U.S. official told Axios said the Biden administration was working “quietly but quite assiduously” to expand the accords. He stressed that the effort would take time and that no breakthroughs were imminent.

The Trump administration sought to bring Indonesia and Mauritania into the Abraham Accords but those efforts didn’t advance far enough by the end of his presidency. According to Axios, “The Indonesians requested an upgraded trade deal with the U.S. in return for taking steps toward normalization, like opening direct flights and issuing visas to Israelis, according to former Trump administration officials.”

‘Very Few Indonesians Have Met a Jew’

Unfortunately, antisemitism is rife in Indonesia.

“Very few Indonesians have met a Jew,” said Shira Loewenberg, director of American Jewish Committee’s Asia Pacific Institute in a 2020 AJC report. “And there is a huge gap in popular understanding of Jews, Judaism, the State of Israel and the relationships between them.

“We are pursuing a multi-pronged approach to garner greater understanding and lessening the demonization of each. We are hopeful of progress on this front, as well as of fostering a more productive relationship between Indonesia and Israel moving forward.”

Indonesia has a miniscule Jewish population estimated at 100-500 people.

According to the AJC report, “Sympathy with the Palestinians largely informs the anti-Jewish sentiment in Indonesia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel. Those who express support for the Jewish state are likely to be deemed betrayers of Palestinians and, by extension, of Islam.”

The AJC also noted that “Discourse about Israel is also poisoned with lies that Israel destroys mosques and that Muslims are barred from the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Israel. Many Indonesians do not know that Israel is a democracy and that Muslims serve as judges, doctors, social workers, and members of the Knesset.”

Indeed, the signing of the Abraham Accords and the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem sparked Indonesian outrage, including protests outside the U.S. embassy in Jakarta.

Despite the absence of diplomatic relations, signs indicate a possible thaw. On the sidelines of a conference in Bahrain in November, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto was spotted talking to Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata and Itay Tagner, Israel’s chargé d’affaires to Bahrain.

In 2018, the leader of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization courted controversy by visiting Israel. Before the coronavirus pandemic restricted travel, roughly 30,000 Indonesian pilgrims visited Israel annually. Israeli and Indonesian businesses are known to trade through third countries.

Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed the Abraham Accords in April of 2020. Since then, Morocco and Sudan have signed on as well.

Reports have speculated that Bangladesh, Oman, Libya, Tunisia and Malaysia will be next to join.

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