What Indonesia could learn from Turkey

by Hadza Min Fadhli Robby, Lecturer of International Relations Studies at Universitas Islam Indonesia

It’s been a while since Yahya Cholil Staquf (Gus Yahya)’s visit to AJC Forum in Israel has sparked controversies in Indonesia. Many people, especially from Indonesian Muslim communities, has considered his visit as a betrayal not only towards the suffering and struggle of Palestinian people, but also a betrayal towards the spirit of Indonesian constitution. As a well-known mentee of KH Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), considered his visit and his effort to meet Israeli government to open a new chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Quoting Gus Dur, Gus Yahya thought that to ensure peace between Israel and Palestine, it is very important to involve a ‘moral-religious element’ as an alternative of both ‘political’ and ‘military element’ which was proven to be ineffective in the past. Gus Yahya felt that it is his responsibility to deliver the message of peace and rahmah (compassion) to Israeli people and government. By emphasizing the importance of compassion, Gus Yahya hoped that Israeli people and government could change their perspective towards the Palestinian and towards the conflict as a whole. Gus Yahya also give an important insight that Israel-Indonesia relations could not be normalized if there are no significant attempts are taken in the effort to ensure peace between Israel and Palestine.

With his statement, Gus Yahya is provoking a new debate on the possibility of establishing Israel-Indonesia relations in the new era. Many had thought that the doors are closed since the constitution of Indonesia implicitly prohibited any kinds of efforts and possibilities to open relations with colonizers like Israel.

Despite all pessimism, Gus Dur and Gus Yahya are trying to break the limit by saying that not only Indonesia could establish relations with Israel, Indonesia could also play a significant role – either through governmental or societal approach – to start a new initiative in the Israel-Palestine peace process. This thought is somehow also reflected in the case of Turkey during Erdoğan’s leadership.

At that time, as Turkish new leader, Erdoğan was facing difficult conditions both in home and abroad. Erdoğan had a task to prove he could solve domestic Turkish problems that had undermined international communities’ confidence towards Turkey. In an effort to restore confidence, Erdoğan tried to re-engage and re-connect Turkey with Turkish immediate neighbors. One of these neighbors is Israel.

Although Turkish-Israeli relation was mainly considered as a relation between traditional allies, this relation was grounded more on strategic and defense issues. This is due to Turkish-Israeli relations’ nature as a relation which was built mainly to serve Western powers’ interest during Cold War. Erdoğan’s government tried to further the relations between two countries by emphasizing the importance of building mutual trust.

Although Turkish-Israeli relations suffered some major setbacks due to several incidents, Turkey and Israel still manage to establish communication and continue its diplomatic relations. Turkey’s effort to secure Israel’s confidence has actually resulted Turkey being trusted to channel humanitarian assistance to Gaza Strip. At one moment, Israel even trusted Turkey to broke mediation efforts between Israel, HAMAS and Syria.

In this retrospect, Indonesia could learn several things from Turkey if Indonesia really wants to build relations with Israel:

1. Strong criticism and discourses doesn’t mean that the table couldn’t be set for diplomacy

Erdoğan’s government was widely known for their strongest support towards the cause of Palestine. Many, including Indonesian public, had considered that Turkey is the leading global actor whose role is very critical in ensuring the independence of Palestine. Turkey has also known for its use of strong and agressive language when addressing Israel.

In several occassion, Turkey has considered Israel as an “ apartheid” and “terrorist” state. Despite all criticism addressed, Turkey has never pull itself away from the negotiation tables. Difficult issues, such as Mavi Marmara incident and Gaza blockade, could be solved with the combination of smart diplomacy and strong rhetoric. Although recently Turkish-Israeli relations suffered another major crisis, it is the willingness to return to the table that improves the conditions of Palestinian and Israeli alike, despite all the odds.

2. Know your “enemy” really well

Another important aspect that should be learn from Turkey is that Turkey is willing to know Israel – its “enemy” – really well. Thanks to existing relations, several Turks were able to learn in Israel. Several Turkish prominent experts on the issue of Israel and Zionism, such as Eldar Hasanoğlu and Ufuk Ulutaş, had studied in Hebrew Language in the Hebrew University of Jerussalem.

Moreover, one of prominent public higher education institution in Turkey had opened an undergraduate degree program in Hebrew Language and Literature since 2010. In Indonesia, some actually had obtained their degree in Israel but didn’t gain prominence for their expertise because they prefer to hide their credentials. Hebrew language had also been offered in many universities.

The main problem laid ahead for Indonesia is the eagerness of Indonesian to put away fears and misconceptions about Israel so that Indonesia could know Israel better and could be able to make a more holistic and concrete policy when dealing with Israel-Palestinian conflict.

3. Civil society is an important source to build mutual trust

In some aspects, particularly in trade and cultural aspect, the role of Turkish and Israeli civil society is undoubtedly significant. Turkish-Israeli trade relations continued normally even during critical time. It is the trust built between Turkish and Israeli businessman that allowed Israeli to construct their infrastructures with Turkish steel and also allowed Turkish to use Israeli fuel and oil products in their vehicles. In the cultural aspect, some parties from Turkish and Israeli civil society had been successful in establishing a goodwill relations among each other.

This goodwill relations are mainly backed up by minority group of Turkish Jews which are still living mainly in neighborhood quarters in European part of Istanbul. This Turkish Jews had a huge role of maintaining their own unique culture as “Ladino”, which is the mixture of Sephardic Jewish-Turkish-Andalusian culture. Turkish Jews are thankful for the role of Ottomans that had saved the live of their ancestors, gave them a new land of hope, and enable them to sustain their “Ladino” culture.

Although many Turkish Jews had fled to Israel since year 2000s, they kept their heritage and their connection to their ancestors’ homeland, Turkey. Some Turkish Jews even founded an association called Arkadaş Association which mainly functioned as a forum to promote friendship and tolerance between Israel and Turkey.

In this aspect it is important to notice that Indonesia previously had also many Jews living in various cities of Indonesia. These Jews had married with locals, mainly in Eastern Indonesia and had their ancestors here. It is very important for Indonesia to acknowledge this fact and use this potential – if Indonesia willing to open a negotiation table with Israel.