As Israel pounds Gaza, Malaysia and Indonesia fill Arab void to back Palestinians’ cause

This article has been published in South China Morning Post on 17th May 2021. The author, Bhavan Jaipragas, interviewed Mr. Yon Machmudi Ph.D., Executive Director of Inisiatif Moderasi Indonesia (InMind) Institute as Southeast Asia Nations spoke up for supporting Palestinians.

Pro-Palestinian supporters demonstrate over the ongoing conflict with Israel. Photo: AFP
  • With states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE having closed ranks with Israel to take on Iran, speaking up for the Palestinians has fallen to Southeast Asian Muslim nations
  • Hardline stance of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei will be closely watched by China and Russia as they seek to shift the US position on the violence in the UN Security Council

Southeast Asian Muslim-majority nations’ loud condemnation of the latest Israeli attacks on Gaza could prove to be the vital nudge needed to stop world powers from sitting on their hands over the worst violence between Israel and Palestinians in years, observers have said.

With the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – one-time champions of the Palestinian cause – seeming to have softened their strident support following an entente with Israel, the hardline stance by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei may keep the matter on top of the global agenda, the experts said.

In particular, Jakarta’s views will be closely watched by China and Russia as they seek to convince the United States to join a unified position on the fighting within the United Nations  Security Council, according to Indonesian political Islam observer Yon Machmudi.

“With the Abraham Accords and normalisation of Arab countries’ relationships with Israel, Indonesia and the other Southeast Asian countries that are currently speaking up are being seen as an alternative to the Arab world in supporting the Palestinians,” the University of Indonesia scholar said, referring to the US-brokered public rapprochement between Israel and several Arab states.

The three Southeast Asian Muslim-majority nations on Sunday issued a rare joint statement lambasting Israel’s air strikes on Gaza and what they described as Israel’s “inhumane, colonial and apartheid” policy towards Palestinians in occupied Palestinian land.

Their statement also called for an emergency meeting of the 193-member UN General Assembly.

Anis Huszainey, a Middle East researcher with Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said the statement was the first coordinated response on the Palestinian cause among the three countries. However, she criticised the countries for continuing to seek recourse through the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and the UN Security Council – both which had failed in the past to produce tangible results in advancing Palestinian statehood.

The three nations made their positions known separately from the OIC to which they belong.

Also on Sunday, the 57-member OIC following a virtual meeting described the Israeli attacks as “barbaric” and said the Jewish nation was undertaking “systematic crimes” against Palestinians.

On Monday, Malaysia issued another statement of its own, condemning the UN Security Council for failing to adopt a common position on the hostilities despite three virtual meetings in the past week.

The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, addressing the 15-nation body on Sunday, said the veto-wielding US was “obstructing” the council in taking action. He said Beijing was ready to host peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The fighting is now in its eighth day following tensions that flared when Israeli police clashed with Palestinians near the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

Israel says its current air strikes in Gaza are acts of self defence following missile attacks by Hamas, and are aimed at destroying the infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities that allow for the production and launching of the projectiles.

Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan said Israel’s response to indiscriminate attacks by Hamas strictly adhered to international law and that the country was taking “unparalleled steps to prevent civilian casualties”.

Palestinians hope to establish a sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza – controlled by Hamas – with east Jerusalem as its capital. Both sides claim that part of the ancient city, and Israel’s annexation is not recognised internationally.

In their statement, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei called for the international community to remain resolute in safeguarding the creation of an independent Palestine under a two-state solution.

Mustafa Izzuddin, a Singapore-based observer of Southeast Asian diplomacy, said it was clear that the three nations wanted to convey their “unequivocal, unambiguous and stern” support for the Palestinian cause.

The three countries do not have formal diplomatic ties with Israel and foreign policy insiders in Malaysia and Indonesia have previously expressed displeasure over the Arab world’s move towards normalisation of bilateral ties with Israel.

Since last August, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have signed normalisation agreements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, with the tacit approval of Saudi Arabia – the most influential player among Sunni Muslim nations.

Riyadh has yet to formalise ties with Israel but Netanyahu last year made what is the firstly publicly confirmed visit to Saudi Arabia by an Israeli leader amid a closing of ranks aimed at taking on Shi’ite-majority Iran.

Fadi Elsalameen, an adjunct senior fellow at the Washington-based American Security Project, lauded the toughened stance by the three Southeast Asian nations, saying their views would be taken seriously given their “influence with the Arab and Islamic world”.

“Furthermore, given the US President Joe Biden administration’s new policy of prioritising Asia, there has never been a better time for the mentioned countries to demand an end to Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinians,” Elsalameen said.

However, Mustafa cautioned against hyping the joint statement, saying that Indonesia in particular did not see itself as a “leader” in the still Middle East-centric world Islamic community, known as the Ummah.

The focus of the archipelagic nation, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, remains on promoting “unity amid diversity” in the Ummah, said Mustafa, a senior international affairs analyst with the consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore.

Malaysian researcher Huszainey said Malaysia and Indonesia’s “good relations and dependency on Gulf states” could prove a challenge in the two countries taking a lead in urging Arab nations to adopt tangible conflict-resolving steps.

Oh Ei Sun, a Malaysian foreign policy observer, also sounded a note of caution, saying he doubted the Southeast Asian pressure would alter Washington’s long-standing support of Israel and its willingness to use its veto powers to thwart UN censure of the Jewish nation.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, said on Sunday that Washington would offer its support “should the parties seek a ceasefire, because we believe Israelis and Palestinians equally have a right to live in safety and security”.

Said Oh: “The US has been consistent in its support of Israel both within and outside the UN Security Council across both Republican and Democratic administrations, and there is no reason to assume that it would be any different this time.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

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