How agriculture led Indonesia’s defense minister to talk normalization with Israel

Written by on January 11, 2022

Agriculture cooperation has played a big role in a recent warming of ties between Israel and Indonesia, with Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto leading the charge from Jakarta.

A recent series of meetings, statements and reports in the last few months of 2021 indicate that Israel and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state, have grown closer.

Israel and Indonesia do not have formal diplomatic relations, but they cooperate in trade and tourism and the Foreign Ministry maintains a Facebook page in Indonesian. In the 1970s and 1980s, Indonesia brought arms from Israel and Indonesian soldiers have trained in Israel. In 1993, then- prime minister Yitzhak Rabin met Indonesian President Suharto in Jakarta. In 2016, then-deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely – now ambassador to the UK – said that Israel is in constant contact with Indonesia and hopes to establish official ties.

Jakarta was in talks with the Trump administration in December 2020 to normalize ties with Jerusalem, and the US International Development Finance Corporation offered to double its investment in Indonesia, to no avail.

Subianto met with Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata at a conference in Manama in November 2021, was seen speaking with Israel’s charge d’affaires in Bahrain Itay Tagner at the same event. After the photo was published, he issued a statement that it is not prohibited for him to speak to Israeli officials when it is in the national interest.

A main street in central Jakarta  (credit: REUTERS)A main street in central Jakarta (credit: REUTERS)

Most recently, a senior diplomatic official confirmed that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken brought the topic up with his counterpart in Jakarta last month and that Jerusalem was informed in advance.

“It’s a long process. There’s one meeting and then another and unmarked planes and all of the cinematic things that go with that – and then, one day, it happens,” the official said.

Some of those secret meetings came from an unexpected source – agricultural cooperation.

Subianto announced in October that he plans to run for president of Indonesia in 2024, and a source with knowledge of the matter said that, like many other leaders of Arab and Muslim states eyeing relations with Israel, Subianto views Jerusalem as a stop on the way to better relations with Washington.

But Subianto was cooperating with Israel in the preceding months on agriculture and food security.

Shmuel Friedman, the general manager of the Central and Northern Arava Research and Development Center and a senior adviser to former agriculture minister Yair Shamir, has been working on an agriculture R&D center in Indonesia.

One of the partners on that project – and others involving Israeli agricultural know-how – is the Indonesian Defense Minister and 2024 presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto.

“Food security for a nation is no less important than security itself and [Subianto] totally agrees with me on that,” Friedman said this week. “That’s what we know to bring. At the end of the day, we bring results and see satisfied farmers, so it doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

Friedman said he is aware of normalization talks between Jerusalem and Jakarta, but is not involved on the political side.

“I believe that ties between countries need to start there, with food security…Not with weapons, with food,” Friedman said.

One of Friedman’s business associates is Joey Allaham, a Damascus-born New York-based businessman, perhaps best known for establishing the high-end kosher restaurant Prime Grill. Allaham lobbied for the government of Qatar in the American Jewish community in 2017-2018, bringing leading community figures to Doha and attaining Qatari donations for pro-Israel organizations.

But Allaham also does business in Indonesia and throughout the Middle East, and tries to connect Israelis to new markets, and helped bring about the cooperation between Friedman and Subianto.

Allaham began working on taking Israel-Indonesia ties from trade and agriculture to diplomacy in early 2021.

Through a business contact who is a former senior IDF intelligence officer, Allaham orchestrated a meeting between Subianto’s personal assistant Sudaryono B.Eng. and an Israeli intelligence agent in Budapest in May 2021.

From there, Israel and Indonesia moved to higher-level contacts, including a meeting in Paris.

During the course of 2021, Israel also offered to send COVID-19 vaccines to Indonesia. Jakarta was hesitant to accept the offer after the Gaza war in May but was willing to continue behind-the-scenes normalization talks.

In the ensuing months, Washington became more involved.

A source with knowledge of the behind-the-scenes talks said that the Biden administration is really pushing for Israel-Indonesia normalization, and they are very optimistic that it will come to fruition.

“I do believe this is the future,” the source said.

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