Jusuf Kalla was the catalyst and a visionary in the relationship between Indonesia and Israel

Steve Stein has been dealing with at least a hundred businessmen from Indonesia. He suggests Indonesian government to ease restrictions to restart direct private trade with Israel.

28 September 2020 00:28

Like many other Arab and muslim countries in the past, Indonesia had also trade relationship with Israel secretly. The private trade relationship between both countries were advanced and robust aftet the lifting of the ban for trade with Israel during Presiden Abdurrahman Wahid era.

Steve Stein, Israeli enterpreneur and also humanitarian activist, witnessed those development. He entered Indonesian markets in 1992 and since that has maintained his business in Indonesia. He has been dealing with at least a hundred businessmen from Indonesia.

Stein, who was the coordinatior for Israeli humanitarian assistance for the victims of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, acknowledged former Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla aka JK played a key role in direct private trade relationship between Indonesia and Israel. As Trade Minister in 2000, Kalla issued a ministerial decree that lifted the ban for trade relationship between both countries.

"Pak JK was the catalyst and a visionary in the relationship," said Steve Stein in an exclusive interview with Faisal Assegaf from Albalad.co via WhatsApp last week. He also assisted Jusuf Kalla and Palang Merah Indonesia (PMI) team while they were travelling to Israel and Palestine ten years ago.

Stein can be called as Kalla's trusted person in Israel. He was contacted by Kalla to help two Indonesians who were also arrested after Israeli elite commandos stormed on Mavi Marmara humanitarian ship in 2010. That two Indonesians then deported via Amman.


Can you explain yoour personal experience while you were starting to do business with ur counterpart from Indonesia?

Because of my unique line of business It took me several years to develop a personal trust with my Indoneaia counter part/s. It wasn’t just buy or sell, my target was to build a solid bridge that will be able to facilitate any kind of challenges.

At every opportunity I made a point to invite Indonesians to visit Israel, meet locals including local Arab citizens. Such approach was instrumental in creating trust with suspicious Indonesians since 1992.

Who was your first counterpart from Indonesia?

Need to ask permission to use his or their names. One of them W.D, he is Javanese.

What did you offer to him?

Agriculture and water technologies.

What about his response?

Very positive because he already knew that Israel was the best in this field.

Until today, how many counterparts do you have in Indonesia?

Over a dozen active counterparts.

When did you meet Indonesian influential figures and government officials for first time?

Soon after December 26 2004 tsunami, I met Minister for Social Welfare Mr. Bachtiar Chamsyah to present him humanitarian aid offered by a Jerusalem based NGO, presenting him a list of aid to be sent to Indonesia, as promised 75 metric ton of aid was airlifted by the NGO on January 11, 2005.

Mr. Chamsyah was doubtfull we were going to deliver because so many NGO’s promised and failed, but I told him that we deliver on our promises and we did. I was at the airport to meet the Boeing 747-200 cargo aircraft.

Mr. Chamsyah was a member of the government emergency committee overseeing international aid in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Where did you meet Bachtiar Chamsyah and who did introduce you to him?

I met Bachtiar Chamsyah at his office at the Ministry for Social Affairs building in Jakarta. Through my associates in Jakarta relayed my offer to deliver aid. It was Jusuf Kalla who recommended for me to meet Bachtiar Chamsyah and present him with offer of assistance.

How could you meet Jusuf Kalla for first time? And how close both of you since that time?

In fact I met Jusuf Kalla when he was chairman of PMI. We communicate as needed as my additional activities representing Israel emergency national services MDA a member of the Red Cross. I always make sure to wish him health on his birthday.

How close your relationship with him now?

As close as it could be. As chairman of PMI, Pak JK called on me following the Mavi Marmara flotilla fiasco on May 31, 2010 attempting to breach Israel blockade of Gaza. In it two Indonesians where on board and arrested by Israeli authorities. One of them was wounded and recovering from surgery at Israel hospital.

Pak JK asked me to visit him and upon recovery to deport him to Indonesia via Amman. His wishes was carried out.

So it can be concluded that you are his trusted person in Israel?

I hope so.

Did you also advise him to visit Israel while he was serving as a vice president?

As you know, Pak JK served also as chairman of PMI. At this role he wanted to visit the Palestinian Red Crescent (PCRS). For this, he needed to enter Israel from Jordan. MDA Chairman Dr. Noam Yifrach and myself assisted with entry visas for Pak JK and PMI team.

Concerned for his safety, I was personally involved to oversee his crossing the Allenby Bridge from Jordan than being picked up by the vehicles of the PRCS to Ramallah which went very smoothly. I invited Pak JK and his PMI entourage to visit MDA facilities for overnight in Tel Aviv as guests of MDA and he agreed.

Again, concerned for his safety and comfort as well as following Red Cross protocol, we traveled to Jerusalem Olive Tree Hotel to meet PMI team with Red Cross representative who escorted the team from Ramallah to Jerusalem. From there together with MDA chairman, we traveled to Tel Aviv.

How was his response on MDA while he was visiting its headquarter?

Very positive, he knew about MDA from Red Cross in Geneva. This time he and team got to visit MDA blood bank, the largest and most modern facility in the Middle East.

Was there any discussion for possible cooperation between MDA and PMI at that time?

When meeting Pak JK first time at PMI headquarters in Jakarta, I suggested cooperation in various areas between PMI and MDA, after all MDA worked closely wth the Palestinian Red Crescent and the Red Cross charter calls for cooperation between national societies.

Can you tell me how did you meet Gus Dur for first time?

Yes, it was in February 2001 during team visit from Israel Ministry of Trade delegation headed by its director general. President Gus Dur hosted the delegation for lunch. This was possible because in Feb 2000, Pak JK as minister of industry and trade removed restrictions in the private sector for direct trade between Indonesia and Israel.

Pak JK was the catalyst and a visionary in the relationship.

Did you involve in any discussion with Jusuf Kalla and Gus Dur before Indonesia decided to lift ban on trade with Israel?

No I did not, it was Ran Cohen, Israel Minister of Industry and Trade in 1999 meet JK during international forum and suggested to allow direct private sector trade which he did. But to implement it on the ground requires believers on both side. That's where I got involved because I could rapidly travel between Israel and Indonesia to advanced Mr. JK ministerial decree.

I have to mentioned that it was not a one man show. Many supporters on both side assisted because they believed it was good for the people of Indonesia and vice versa.

So who did decide to lift ban on trade with Israel, Gus Dur or Jusuf Kalla?

You know Gus Dur had warm feelings about Israel before he became president. It was the authority of JK to lift the ban with the approval of Gus Dur.

Abdurrahman Wahid, former Indonesian President who was a champion of interfaith cooperation and positive relations between Indonesian and Israelis. In 1994, PM Yitzhak Rabin invited Gus Dur to witness the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan.

Alwi Shihab, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in 1999 revealed that there was a possibility to open trade relations with Israel, quoted by Kompas daily on Oct 26, 1999.

Gus Dur felt that this cooperation could be carried out without opening diplomatic relations.

Whose idea to open private trade relationship between Indonesia and Israel?

It was Gus Dur idea.

Did he ask your advise about that issue?

No comment.

Does it mean yes?

No comment.

So who did influence Gus Dur therefore he had an idea to lift the ban on trade with Israel?

Alwi Shihab adviced Gus Dur that there was a legal mechanism to remove the restrictions of trade with Israel. It was JK as a Minister of Trade had the power to revoke the trade restrictions.

Ministerial Decree No. 26/MPP/Kep/12/2000 concerning the cancellation of the Decree of Minister of straws No. 102/SK/VIII/1967, that there are no restrictions or impediments for Indonesian companies to trade with Israeli companies and vice versa.

After the lifting of that ban, how the trade between Indonesia and Israel has run?

As soon as trade restriction lifted.

Is it running well?

Banking and trade restrictions lifted on the Israeli side. We started to inform the business community such as investors, manufactures, bankers and commodity traders, through major seminars of the endless possibilities.

We got two insurance companies one from Indonesia (Asuransi Jasindo) and Israel Assure Ltd. to sign agreement to insure each side for non-performance insurance which is a major factor in dealings between countries.

Because there was no formal relations exist between the two countries, both sides agreed that in case of a dispute between the two sides, arbitration court would be the place to settle it. This mechanism was important to have in place before you start doing business.

Once MoU have been exchange between the ministries and published, we went to work. Before the agreement, trade between both countries in various sectors was US$ 50 to US$ 75 million. With our system in place, it went up to $350-$500 million in two years.

Just to remind you that the business community in Israel is fast moving, well connected and well respected internationally.

Travel to both countries was easy and efficient. We encouraged investors to travel to Indonesia to see firsthand the potentials. In fact, I was called Mr. Indonesia in Israel because my office provided all the answers and solutions of how to do business and to avoid pit-falls.

But then politics stepped in. Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided that they are more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves. They made it difficult for business people to obtain visas for Indonesia even when Indonesia entity was the inviting host. So, frustration set in the business community, the news spread fast.

RI foreign affairs caused the fiasco and turned the visa obtaining process into a black market. Israeli passport holder had to pay up to US$ 700 to obtain a visa while Indonesia passport holder paid only US$ 36.

I warned officials in Jakarta that unless the business issue is properly addressed the trade agreement in place will fall apart. There was a momentum in place but it takes to to tango. If it is difficult to do business in Indonesia, the Israeli business community and bankers will go to other countries which are opening up for them.

Case in point which made me take a back seat promoting business with Indonesia. I convinced a first class Israeli business tycoon to come with me to Indonesia to check on a large business opportunity. He agreed and asked his international attorney to join him for the flight because he was willing to invest big in Indonesia.

Invitation was issued by a large Indonesia conglomerate. The process to obtain the visa was difficult and time consuming, at the end the trip was canceled.

The same businessman just signed a multi billion dollar deal with a large company in the United Arab Emirates.

Pak JK always believed that for Indonesia to have a role to play it must engage Israel through trade. When Gus Dur gave the green light, Pak JK found the solution and issued a ministerial decree.

As early as 1994, when I joined state owned insurance company Asuransi Jasindo as unpaid advicer, together with other associates our goal was "People making Peace (from) bottom up and not from top to bottom." We had the vision but then there are spoilers along the road.

What are the spoilers?

Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the main spoiler, even though other agencies where positive but it take a consensus to approve the visa process.

Who is that Israeli tycoon?

Chairman of Ampa Capital Ltd., Eilat sea port on the Read Sea, Israel Shipyards Ltd. Shlomi Fogel.

When did a large Indonesia conglomerate invite Shlomi Figel?

Checking my records (don’t ask me who was the Indonesian party).

Who was the Indonesian side?

I can not reveal at this time. The invitation was 26 July, 2012.

So how about the business circumstances between Indonesia and Israel today?

Before Covid-19 it is less than US$ 75 million, no new trade, investments or tourism. Unless changes are initiated in Jakarta, I see a bleak future, Israeli and Jewish enterprises invest elsewhere like in Dubai. Especially if you can fly directly, visa on arrival saving time and money.

Opportunities for Israel today are different. It's not like with Indonesia in 2000, 2016 or 2020, the world is moving forward.

Do you think a diplomatic relationship is the only solution to create a robust and advanced economic cooperation between two countries?

Not at all, recreate a friendly business environment which has been lost unfortunately, Israelis need to feel welcomed if they should bring investments, know-how and technologies and the world markets, this should not being taken lightly by the Indonesia public and the private sectors.

Do you think Jusuf Kalla will support for formal relationship with Israel?

Of course establishing formal relationship between countries has numerous advantages, in case of Indonesia a step by step approach should be considered. Pak JK has a role to play, experienced and respected politician by the masses in Indonesia, he will support any kind of relations, but now he has retired. I'm not of liberty of how he wants his legacy to be remembered.

Success in International relations requires boldness, motor a vision to the future and timing. It has been 20 years since Indonesia tried to open the door for direct trade without 3rd country involvement but then it was shut. Did Indonesia missed out with such approach? The answer is yes, it was the Indonesian people who lost out.

Is there any approachment from both sides to restart direct trade?

You need to understand that my activities was not only trade and investments, I developed programs to train medical doctors, paramedics in disaster management and how to handle mass casualty events. We had a training program for farmers in agriculture and water for food security, as well as relationships between universities. The support was great it was a win-win for all. But then the momentum was stoped, it wasn't the fault of the Israeli side.

Currently there is some interest for Israeli start-ups but the corona virus would make it a slow process to properly implement.

When did direct trade between Indonesia and Israel stop?

When it was noticeable in 2017 that the relationship is one sided.

Is there any official notice from Indonesian government?

No, the ministerial decree of Feb 2000 by Pak JK was never revoked. When visas became hard to obtain, we got the message. In June 2018, after Indonesia rejected 53 tourists visas, as a counter-attack Israel imposed a ban on Indonesian tourists to travel to Israel.

Do you think there is an opportunity to repair the relations between both countries?

Yes indeed, since I know both sides and can travel at moments notice before 2018 visa ban. I offered several solutions which are doable, but no one on the Indonesian side thought it is a pressing matter.

Listen, if we can do business with Vietnam, Cambodia, or China, we can do it with Indonesia, but it takes both sides to be engaged to resolve in advance sensitive issues.

Comparing with Soeharto era, how about the value of trade between Indonesia and Israel after Gus Dur era?

A big boost and increase in trade after Gus Dur era. His approach was a welcome in the business community on both sides.

Is there any Israel representative designated office in Indonesia?

Not that I'm aware.

Regarding normalisation process between Israel with UAE and Bahrain and likely followed by other Arab and muslim countries, do yu think Indonesia will take a more open approachment to Israel?

We certainly hope soon, so a more open approach by Indonesia towards Israel is required and needed.

Contrary to popular belief in the past, peace must first be established between the Arab states and Israel, and then the Palestinian issue may be included. Indonesia should adopt such approach now.

We can convince a generation of Palestinian politicians that the only way to get a state is through a deep and genuine understanding between people and cultures, and not just around territorial negotiations.

For your information, just before COVID-19 outbreak, my office has been approached by the Palestinian date growers association to assist them in entering the Indonesia market. It only showed you that politics was not an issue in this and other matters.

Do you have any documentation how many Indonesian businessmen have trade relations with their counterparts from Israel?

This info is not available by me never kept a list. I can tell you that I have been dealing with at least 100 + if not more.

Include tycoon?

Not yet.




Lieutenant Colonel (Reserve) Eyal Dror, the commander of Israel military humanitarian mission for Syrians during 2013-2018. He is also the chief of the Good Neighbor Unit at Israel Defense Force. (Albalad.co)

Israeli military treated and helped Syrians because they are human beings

"The State of Israel is not an enemy and that we want to live with them in peace and willing to help them in such a difficult time," said Eyal Dror.

Rabbi David Rosen from the American Jeiwsh Committee and the Secretary General of the Muslim World League Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Karim al-Isa. (Rabbi David Rosen for Albalad.co)

I support the normalization between Indonesia and Israel

"I think this would ultimately be good for Palestinians as well. Isolating Israel only compounds a situation of distress for them," said Rabbi David Rosen.

Ronen Skaletzky, Israeli Jew who refuses Zionism and opposes the normalization between Israel and muslim countries. (Ronen Skaletzky for Albalad.co)

As Israeli Jew, I refuse Zionism and oppose the normalization between Israel and muslim countries

"These Arab dictators try to get US and Israeli support for their regime against Iran and their own people's democratic inspirations. Why should Indonesia join this trend of dictatorial betrayal?" said Ronen Skaletzky.

Israel and Indonesia: What lies ahead

If you look at the trade between Israel and Turkey which is around US$ 6 billion, you can see what can be achieved. The biggest potential is in agriculture.

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