Indonesian President Joko Widodo heads to US amid Gaza tensions

Widodo is under pressure over the war, which has killed more than 11,000 in a month, but is likely to take a low-key approach.

Joko Widodo at an event. He is wearing black and is clapping.
Analysts say Indonesia's President Joko Widodo is unlikely to want to rock the boat in his talks with US President Joe Biden [File: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

Medan, Indonesia – Indonesian President Joko Widodo is in the United States this week for a summit with President Joe Biden at the White House, and later to attend the 30th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco, amid the continuing Israel-Gaza war.

The visit has prompted questions about whether Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, will call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The issue is particularly heated as the Indonesia Hospital, located in north Gaza, has been encircled by Israeli forces.

The hospital was built in 2011 with donations from Indonesian citizens and organisations, including the Indonesian Red Cross Society and the Muhammadiyah Society, one of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisations. It was officially inaugurated in 2016 by the then-Indonesian vice president, Jusuf Kalla.

Three Indonesian volunteers with the Indonesian humanitarian organisation the Medical Emergency Rescue Committee (MER-C), which organised the donations to build the hospital, are currently based in north Gaza.

However, despite the grim situation in the besieged enclave, experts told Al Jazeera that Widodo was likely to use the visit to the White House to discuss a wide range of issues.

“He will likely discuss several matters related to investment and trade, especially related to the relocation of the capital and critical minerals such as nickel, downstreaming and the production of electric vehicles in Indonesia,” said Ahmad Rizky M Umar, an associate lecturer at the University of Queensland.

Joko Widodo examining aid meant for Gaza at the airport. The aid is on pallets and ready to be lifted into the plane. Widodo is accompanied by his foreign minister
Indonesia sent humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza earlier this month [Bay Ismoyo/AFP]

Trade and investment

As an outgoing president whose second, and final, term in office will end next year, Widodo is likely to be concerned with securing his legacy and shoring up current projects already in the works, such as plans to relocate 1.5 million of Jakarta’s 11 million residents to East Kalimantan under the new capital city project estimated to cost some $32bn.

Umar added that Widodo would probably also discuss Indonesia’s membership of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which might make it more attractive to investors given the organisation’s commitment to best practices, as Southeast Asia’s biggest economy looks to lure more US entrepreneurs.

“He will also probably discuss the elevation of bilateral cooperation between Indonesia and the United States into a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’,” Umar said.

According to the White House, the theme for this year’s APEC is “Creating a Resilient and Sustainable Future for All” with the aim of building “an interconnected, innovative and inclusive” region and advancing “a free, fair and open economic policy agenda that benefits US workers, businesses and families”.

APEC was established in 1989 and has 21 members including Indonesia, Australia, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the United States and Vietnam, comprising nearly 3 billion people and contributing 62 percent to the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), while controlling almost half of all global trade.

Indonesia itself is also a major emerging economy which some estimate could rank in the top five economies globally by the middle of the century.

Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer in international relations at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in Bandung, told Al Jazeera that, while Widodo might mention Palestine, it would not be the main topic of conversation.

The US has backed Israel since Hamas launched a surprise wave of attacks on October 7 killing at least 1,200 people and taking at least 200 more captive.

After the assault, Israel declared war on Hamas and has subjected Gaza, home to some 2.3 million people, to relentless bombardment.

More than 11,000 people have been killed.

“I think he will focus on the economy and wider Indonesian relations with the United States. He is not the kind of leader who will get on his soapbox with America. He will want to make sure that relations with the United States are running smoothly,” he said.

“He will be focused on what Indonesia can gain from the visit and not spend too much time on other issues. It will be a transactional meeting.”

An open letter to Widodo

However, much as Widodo may want to focus on economic matters, the thorny issue of the Indonesia Hospital is likely to be difficult to ignore.

“I suspect he will talk about Palestine, especially regarding humanitarian aid and a ceasefire, because Israel itself has accused the Indonesia Hospital of being a Hamas hideout,” University of Queensland lecturer Umar said.

Last week, Israel accused the Indonesia Hospital of harbouring Hamas fighters in tunnels under the building.

Indonesia’s foreign ministry rejected the allegations, saying that the Indonesia Hospital was to “fully” serve Palestinians.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country with 207 million of its 270 million people following Islam. The country does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel and there is no Israeli embassy in Indonesia.

Indonesian citizens and the government have long been seen as sympathetic to the Palestinian cause – hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets of Jakarta in recent weeks to call for a ceasefire – but there have been periodic attempts to thaw relations with Israel, including under former President Abdurrahman Wahid.

On November 11, MER-C issued an open letter to Widodo, calling on him to use his visit to the White House to “save the Indonesia Hospital”.

“Today marks the 36th day of the world witnessing indiscriminate aggression, murder, and mass slaughter of civilians in the Gaza Strip, the majority of whom are women and children […] all hospitals in the Gaza Strip, have fallen victim to the brutality of the Israeli military,” the letter said.

It added that the Indonesia Hospital was trying to operate amid total darkness and a shortage of medications.

MER-C continued that it hoped that Widodo would raise the issue of the hospital during his meeting with Biden, and “exert pressure on the world, especially the United States, to immediately initiate a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and save the Indonesia Hospital from Israeli attacks”.

“Will the world and our Indonesian nation continue to remain silent in the face of this?” the letter said.

Source: Al Jazeera