Indonesia leader says no foreign policy change in hosting Israel for U-20 World Cup

Protesters shout slogans during a rally against Israel in Jakarta, on March 20, 2023. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JAKARTA – Indonesia’s President said on Tuesday that Israel’s participation in football’s Under-20 World Cup hosted by his country meant no change to its foreign policy, stressing amid domestic protests that sport and politics should not mix.

Mr Joko Widodo confirmed he had sent Mr Erick Thohir, a Cabinet minister and former Inter Milan chairman who heads the country’s football association (PSSI), to talk to world governing body Fifa, after the draw for the tournament was cancelled over opposition to Israel taking part.

Jokowi, as the leader is popularly known, underlined Indonesia’s support for Palestine and a two-state solution. He said Israel’s qualification was secured in July 2022, long after his country won hosting rights.

“I hereby guarantee Israel’s participation has nothing to do with the consistency of our foreign policy position towards Palestine, because our support for Palestine is always strong and sturdy,” he said in a livestreamed address.

“Do not mix matters of sports and politics.”

Indonesia has no formal diplomatic ties with Israel and protesters recently held marches in Jakarta demanding Israel be stopped from competing in the May 20 to June 11 event.

Indonesia’s population is predominantly Muslim and most practise a moderate version of Islam, though a rise in religious conservatism has crept into politics in recent years.

The PSSI on Sunday said the draw for the 24-team tournament, initially scheduled for Friday, had been cancelled after the Governor of the largely Hindu holiday island of Bali refused to host Israel’s team.

Mr Wayan Koster had urged the Ministry of Youth and Sports to “adopt a policy forbidding the Israeli team from competing in Bali” due to the conflict with the Palestinians, the media reported, citing his letter.

His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Governor told the media on Monday he was following a “government stance”. Israel’s football association has been contacted for comment.

Mr Widodo made no mention on Tuesday of what Mr Thohir would propose to Fifa.

The cancellation raised fears the country might lose its hosting rights and plunge Indonesian football into isolation again. It was suspended from Fifa for a year until May 2016 due to government interference.

Indonesia is also trying to rebuild its reputation after a stampede at a stadium in East Java in 2022 led to the deaths of 135 spectators, many crushed as they fled for exits after police fired tear gas into the crowd.

Mr Muhadjir Effendy, the acting sports minister, on Tuesday told Parliament that a solution must be found and that hosting the tournament was crucial for Indonesian football.

“There are still possibilities,” he said. “Fifa is very appreciative, understanding of what’s happening in Indonesia.

“We’re trying some options, and the best one we’re still hoping for is that the event still happens in Indonesia.” REUTERS

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