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Jokowi’s UN speech: Playing it safe on Palestine

There are two sentences that stood out to me the most in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s first speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

First, his repeated pledge on Palestine; then, his unique closing remark. It would be difficult for journalists to pick up the most interesting parts of his statements because I think he deliberately opted to use plain and even dull words.

The President decided to play it safe to ensure that his pressing domestic agenda would not be disrupted, and therefore he did not want to look like pahlawan kesiangan (an accolade-seeker) on the global stage.

For the time being, Jokowi has two top priorities: making COVID-19 vaccines available at affordable prices and resurrecting an economy that has nearly collapsed.

“Indonesia consistently supports Palestine to claim its rights,” was his only statement about Palestine.

Amid Israel’s big achievement in isolating Palestine with a strong backing from US President Donald Trump, Palestinian President Abbas Mahmoud and Hamas leaders would naturally expect Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, to convey a strong message of support or at least solace.

But Jokowi seemed intent on avoiding a clear position. What did he say in concluding his speech? Normally Indonesian leaders, including Jokowi, would address the audience in Arabic. Instead, Jokowi kept it very simple. Funny, but sharp.

“That is all from me!” Throughout his speech, Jokowi avoided sensitive and controversial statements. He did not want to talk too much. Some may believe the President did not dare to taunt big and rich nations. Others will defend him, saying national interests, instead of prestige, are above everything.

Jokowi should have known earlier that many world leaders such as President Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would seize the moment of the virtual United Nations General Assembly to show off their leadership or to attack other countries. I believe Jokowi’s chief diplomat, Retno LP Marsudi, had briefed her boss about the current global crisis and how Indonesia should take a stand on at least four issues.

Apparently the President agreed, but he preferred to deliver it in a subtle way. First, he addressed the devastating COVID-19 pandemic; second, tensions in the South China Sea; third, the abandonment of the Palestinian people by some of their traditional supporters, the Arab countries; and fourth, dying multilateralism in global relations.

About the pandemic, the President said, “At a time when we ought to unite and work together to tackle the pandemic, what we see instead is deep division and growing rivalries.” The President was also reluctant to directly address China on the South China Sea, perhaps because he expects much from China on vaccine supplies and does not want to jeopardize his good terms with President Xi Jinping.

“ASEAN reaffirms its commitment to continue maintaining peace and stability in the region […] through the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” Jokowi emphasized.

By recognizing that “multilateralism is the only way to guarantee equality”, Jokowi also chose to avoid unnecessary rebuke from President Trump, who is known as an antagonist of multilateralism through his “America First” doctrine.

Initially, I wished Jokowi would specifically address the Palestinian cause. Given his staunch support for Palestine in its fight for independence, Jokowi would, in a nonconfrontational way, remind the world about the risks of Palestine’s isolation in the peace deal between Israel and several Arab states.

The President intentionally chose to play it safe, refraining from criticizing any country, even though clearly Palestine will be left behind in the search for long-lasting peace in the Middle East.

Jokowi had evaded the annual United Nations General Assembly for six years until last year, when he made up his mind and planned to address the event this year, which coincides with the UN’s 75th anniversary. Jokowi refused to go to New York last year, although Indonesia succeeded in securing a nonpermament seat in the UN Security Council.

Jokowi’s appearance on Wednesday was too little too late, because he could only deliver his speech virtually. From the very beginning Jokowi has prioritized the Palestine issue as the core of his foreign policy agenda.

He has reiterated Indonesia’s pledge to not recognize Israel as a sovereign state until Palestine becomes an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital city. All seven of Indonesia’s presidents spoke loud in defending Palestine, including when a Palestinian delegation attended the Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung in 1955.

But only two of the presidents opened talks with Israel. Soeharto, bidding to become a peace maker, secretly invited Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to his private residence in Jakarta in October 1995.

The fourth president, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, a moderate Muslim cleric, frankly expressed his intention to open official diplomatic relations with Israel, saying that it was the most effective way to enable Indonesia to mediate the Middle East negotiations.

Jokowi’s soft statement on Palestine is disappointing. He is not very different from other Muslim leaders, who half-heartedly defend Palestine for the sake of their own national interests.

If I were the Indonesian president, I would have reminded the Islamic world to not forget the decades-long ordeal of the Palestinian people and at the same time tell the Palestinian leaders that they are partly responsible for the worsening situation. Quoting President Jokowi, let me conclude this column: “That is all from me!” ———- Senior editor at The Jakarta Post

This article was published in with the title “Jokowi’s UN speech: Playing it safe on Palestine”. Click to read:


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