The recent protests in Indonesia against Israeli youth footballers’ participation in the U-20 World Cup complicate Indonesia’s image as a tolerant and moderate Muslim-majority country.
The author would like to thank A’an Suryana and Norshahril Saat for their incisive questions, which helped to strengthen the piece.
The politicisation of an international sporting event has highlighted domestic differences over Indonesia’s role in the wider Muslim world. How easily this issue has stoked ground tensions also suggests that elite politicking for the 2024 elections has truly begun.
Indonesia is slated to host the U-20 World Cup from 20 May-11 June 2023. However, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) has postponed the tournament draw in the wake of anti-Israel protests in Jakarta and elsewhere. It was originally scheduled to be held in Bali at end-March.
The 20 March Jakarta protests involved hundreds of pro-Palestinian individuals, including a group calling itself “Aksi 203”, which raised a large banner calling Israel “the enemy of Islam”. Its supporters were carrying Palestinian flags. Another group, the Islamic Brotherhood Front (Front Persaudaraan Islam, FPI, formerly the Islamic Defenders’ Front), burned the Israeli flag.
Quoting Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) executive committee member Arya Sinulingga, Tempo reported that the Bali governor’s rejection of the Israeli team’s presence in his province led to FIFA’s decision. Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo similarly rejected the Israeli footballers’ presence in Indonesia. He was not the only Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) cadre to do so. NU leader Yahya Staquf however cautioned against protests, which he warned might inadvertently worsen Palestine’s position, and delinked the issue from that of Indonesia’s bilateral ties with Israel.
The Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) was silent at first but might have been pressured into issuing a statement after initial protests in Solo by Islamist demonstrators in early March. On 19 March, MUI rejected the participation of the Israeli players, stating that “Israel is an occupier”. It urged President Joko Widodo’s government to follow in Sukarno’s footsteps in standing against Israel. Following MUI’s statement, the “212 Group” — famed for staging the 2016-2017 protests against then Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — staged anti-Israel protests alongside the others mentioned above.
For the Islamist camp and more conservative politicians, piling on criticism of Israel serves to burnish their Muslim credentials. For secularist politicians like Ganjar, this might be read as opportunism to win potential Muslim voters for next year’s race to the political top.
There is certainly egg on the Indonesian foreign ministry’s (Kemlu’s) face. On 10 March, Kemlu had stated that Indonesia had “no issue” with Israel’s participation even though the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations. The Kemlu spokesperson had, however, underscored that this did not mean any change in Indonesia’s pro-Palestine stance.
While it is too early to say if FIFA would completely pull the plug on Indonesia as host of the U-20, this will grow likelier if the Indonesian authorities cannot tamp down public emotions during the fasting month or guarantee players’ safety when and if the actual Cup takes place.
FIFA’s decision takes place against the backdrop of recent violence in the West Bank settlements. Indonesia’s Kemlu has staunchly spoken up for the Palestinians, in keeping with longstanding practice. On 27 March 2023, @MoFA Indonesia, the official Twitter account of Kemlu, issued a series of tweets condemning Israel’s tender announcement to “rebuild 940 settlements in the West Bank and 89 new settlements in East Jerusalem”. Underscoring Indonesia’s support for a “Solusi Dua Negara” (two-state solution), Kemlu urged a special meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to halt Israel’s plan.
For the Islamist camp and more conservative politicians, piling on criticism of Israel serves to burnish their Muslim credentials. For secularist politicians like Ganjar, this might read as opportunism to win potential Muslim voters for next year’s race to the political top.
This is not the first time that geopolitics and Indonesian sentiment vis-à-vis Israel’s treatment of Palestine have complicated sporting events.
In 1962, Indonesia had denied a 27-person Israeli contingent entry into the country for the Asian Games. In an odd about-turn, then Indonesian Sport Minister R. Maladi invited the Israeli Football Association to the Asian Football Confederation Congress in Jakarta, which the Israelis turned down. However, five years later, the situation had eased and an Israeli football club, Hapoel Tel Aviv, won the inaugural 1967 Asian Club championship.
The lack of diplomatic ties does not mean that Indonesia and Israel have no links at all. Bilateral trade is estimated at about US$500 million annually by some observers. It is this hope of further trade and investment links that keeps talk of an eventual formalisation of ties alive. Some optimistic observers expect Indonesia to follow Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan, which signed the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020. But rising domestic sympathy vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Widodo’s support for the Palestinians complicate such an enterprise.
This means that non-governmental, people-to-people ties must serve as an alternative. A 2021 analysis pointed to academic, agricultural, and other avenues like emergency medicine where limited but positive collaborations had taken place between Indonesians and Israelis, including by NU and Muhammadiyah members with recognised Israeli NGOs. In July 2022, a visit to Indonesia by an Israeli delegation — comprising individuals holding dual nationalities — explored “investment, start-up ventures and social impact initiatives”.
The sceptics might be winning. An August 2022 commentary by Jakarta Post senior editor Kornelius Purba questioned former vice president Jusuf Kalla’s broaching of formalising ties with Israel. Purba dismissed Kalla’s idea that Indonesia could try to resolve the Palestinian issue, saying it would be “too naïve to think that Israel will listen to or be ready to compromise with the Palestinians” for the sake of relations with Indonesia. Purba added that for most Indonesians, formalising diplomatic ties with Israel was “unimaginable”, while for Indonesian politicians it would be “political suicide”.
A total pull-out by FIFA would embarrass President Widodo and compromise Indonesia’s image as a tolerant and moderate Muslim-majority country. Separately, there is a risk that whatever public anti-Israel sentiment whipped up to damage or boost certain politicians’ reputations taints the country’s elections next year. On 28 March, Mr. Widodo finally made a statement, reaffirming Indonesia’s support for Palestinian “independence” but in the form of a two-state solution. While he asked Indonesians not to “mix sports and political matters”, he did not expressly call for calm. By saying that Minister of State-Owned Enterprises and PSSI chair Erick Thohir would meet FIFA to find a solution, he essentially passed the ball — and the buck — to the minister. This should not be; as in soccer, Indonesia’s “captain” should be leading from the front.
Author’s postscript: On 30 March, The Jakarta Post reported that following Thohir’s meeting with the FIFA president in Doha, the Association “officially removed” Indonesia as the 2023 U-20 World Cup host by revoking its licence. “Potential sanctions” against the PSSI could be decided later.
Julia Lau is a Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme, and Editor, Fulcrum at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.