Friday, July 07, 2006

Sport, Business and Israel

The unjustified ‘collective punishment’ by Israel to the Palestinian people seems to have evoked contradicting responses in Indonesia. Being a staunch supporter of Palestinian cause and statehood, Indonesian leaders think that Indonesia needs to show her sympathy and solidarity to the Palestinian people. But sport and business in Indonesia seem to have different take on this Israel – Palestine political conflict. Let’s take a closer look to the latest incidents related to this ongoing conflict.

First is the decision by the Indonesian government not to send the Indonesian Fed Cup team scheduled to play a playoff tie with the Israeli team for the World Group II in Tel Aviv later this month. Having worked so hard to reach the world group, this decision is a big blow to the Indonesian Fed Cup team: demotion from the World Group, inability to qualify for the World Group II next year and will face a host of penalties from the ITF.

Besides a possible fine of US$50,000 from the ITF and reimbursement of the Israeli association's expenses for hosting the tie for defaulting the tie, the players could also face suspension from international tournaments. And should the suspension last two years, it means Indonesia will miss the chance to play in the 2008 Olympic Game in Beijing. This is a very huge loss to the Indonesian tennis development.

Second, on June 25-29 a delegation from the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) was in Israel and concluded an economic agreement with the Manufacturers Associations of Israel (MAI) in an effort to seek closer business relations and assistance for Indonesia's economy. Under the deal, the two groups will work to exchange business information, forming joint business projects, and assist Indonesian and Israel businesspeople in their activities in the two countries.

Kadin Chairman Mohammad Hidayat said that the Kadin’s delegation visit to Israel and the subsequent agreement signed between Kadin and MAI was conducted in the capacity of Kadin as an independent business association and purely for business purposes. He reiterated that there is no diplomatic or political issues involved in it and the challenges now are to realize the cooperation for Indonesia’s benefit without resulting in any political implications.

According to Kadin, two-way trade between Indonesia and Israel was valued at around US$160 million last year, up from $120 million in 2004. Indonesia mostly imported chemicals and electronic components valued at some $14 million from Israel last year, and predominantly exported electronic products, plastics and rubber. The new agreement would permit the exploration of more business opportunities from Israel in the fields of agriculture, horticulture, information technology and advance technology equipment. A pilot project in agriculture and horticulture is soon to be launched in Indonesia and more Israeli investment will be available soon in Indonesia.

In the first incident, the Indonesian government insisted that the Indonesian Tennis Association (Pelti) not to send the Fed Cup team to Israel as a show of solidarity and sympathy to the Palestinian people. Even though the invitation to play in Tel Avis was extended by the Israeli Tennis Association, an independent tennis body, and not by the invitation of the Israeli government, the current event in Palestine seems to have forced the Indonesian government to reconsider its previous stance to give the team a green light to go to Israel. The reason: the Indonesian government can no longer tolerate what Israel has done to Palestine.

On the contrary, Kadin insisted that its engagement with MAI is solely for business purposes and not related to any political or diplomatic cooperation. For the sake of business investment and economic development in Indonesia, Kadin insisted on giving the green light to the implementation of the recently signed agreement. Kadin had never officially informed the government about the visit nor sought any permission for it. The Israeli Embassy in Singapore was involved in arranging the trip while several Indonesian government officials knew about it beforehand. Until now, Indonesia and Israel do not have any bilateral diplomatic ties.

Politically speaking, the Indonesian tennis team should have gone ahead with the schedule and go to Tel Aviv to play against the Israeli team there. The team is invited by an independent organization, the Israeli Tennis Association, to play there and not by the Israeli government. If Kadin could visit Tel Aviv and go ahead with its plan of more intense bilateral relation between Indonesia and Israel in business and investment without prior blessing of the government, why can’t Pelti take similar, independent stand in this matter? Tennis is a sport, politics is wholly different matter. The two should be separated as far as possible. Let the players play the game of tennis, and the politicians play the game of politics.

Witnessing the heroic struggle of the Indonesian Fed Cup team to qualify into the World Group two years ago in New Delhi was a delight and a historic personal experience. Knowing that the team I have supported wholeheartedly to be demoted to a lesser degree due to political pressure is disheartening.

Showing sympathy and solidarity to the Palestinian people does not mean that we have to sacrifice our national interests. Kadin has given this example. Being able to play more active role in international forums to pressurize Israel to solve the conflict in the region peacefully is more important for Indonesia than boycotting a tennis tournament.

If India, another staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, can work hand in hand and even opened up a diplomatic tie with the Jewish state without lessening its support to Palestine and the Palestinian people, why Indonesia can’t do the same? Kadin’s decision to go ahead with its business cooperation with MAI is, in my opinion, a big step forward to improve the economic condition and investment opportunities in Indonesia. Let’s play the game of tennis.

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