Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia – While the people of Bali are famed for their tolerance and hospitality, a foreign policy impasse between Indonesia and Israel dating back to the 1940s is threatening to derail a little-known but symbolically important Olympic-recognised competition on the island.
A multi-sports event for beach and water sports, the second edition of the World Beach Games is scheduled to take place on the Indonesian island between August 5 and August 12, with athletes competing in 14 disciplines like surfing and beach volleyball that appeal to a young demographic.
The inaugural World Beach Games was held in Qatar in 2019, with subsequent events cancelled as a result of COVID.
With a tourism-dependent economy that was crippled by the pandemic, Bali’s winning bid last July to host the event announced to the world that the island was back open for business. But Bali’s hosting rights for the event are on a knife-edge.
Last year, the Indonesian Olympic Committee gave assurances that qualifying athletes from all countries would be accepted at the games. But Bali’s Governor Wayan Koster has now said Israeli athletes are not welcome, citing a preamble to the Indonesian Constitution calling for the universal abolition of colonialism and the country’s immutable support for Palestinian statehood.
“I remain consistent in refusing the Israeli team’s participation in the 2023 World Beach Games in Bali,” he told The Jakarta Post in April.
The preamble has prevented Israeli passport holders – even if they are Palestinians – from visiting Indonesia since the Jewish state declared independence in 1948.
A small number of Israeli athletes have, however, circumvented the ban. They include Misha Zilberman, who secured a visa to compete at the 2015 Olympic-recognised Badminton World Championships and, more recently, four Israeli cyclists who competed in the World Cycling Championships in Jakarta in February.
If Indonesia is stripped of hosting rights over the dispute, it would be the second major sporting event derailed by Koster this year.
A little more than a month before Bali and two other Indonesian islands were set to host the 2023 FIFA Under-20 World Cup on May 20, he rejected the presence of the Israeli football team in Bali and accused world football’s governing body of double standards for blacklisting Russia over its invasion of Ukraine while turning a blind eye to Israel’s actions.
“I invite the people of Bali to pray together so that FIFA will be moved to act fairly by eliminating the Israeli team in the FIFA U-20 World Championship, the same way it did when eliminating the Russian team in the 2022 FIFA World Championship in Qatar,” Koster said.
FIFA was not impressed. It revoked Indonesia’s hosting rights for the U-20 World Cup and expelled the Indonesian team from the competition, which took place in Argentina, and restricted funding to the Football Association of Indonesia.
Many have asked why the leader of a Hindu-majority island is taking such a strong stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“It’s not my attitude, it’s also the government’s attitude,” Koster told reporters after emerging from a high-level government meeting in Jakarta in March.
Indonesian news magazine Tempo later reported that former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, now chair of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle – of which Koster is a representative – ordered him to ban Israeli athletes so the party could score points in the lead-up to next year’s general elections.
In the world’s most populous Muslim nation, support for Palestinian statehood is almost universal and a tough stance on Israel often appeals to conservative Muslim voters – the most important bloc in any national election.
The move to ban Israeli athletes from sporting events in Indonesia is supported by the Ulema Council, Indonesia’s top Islamic scholars’ body, as well as the powerful Islamic Defenders Front, a hardline Islamist organisation and pressure group with a prominent social media presence, and other Muslim groups that held protests in Jakarta in March at which Israeli flags were burned and banners proclaiming “Israel is the enemy of Islam” were displayed.
The central government is yet to publicly comment on the move to ban Israeli from the World Beach Games. But public reaction to the loss of the U-20 World Cup in the 280 million-strong nation was mixed, with thousands of netizens denouncing the government on social media for mixing politics and religion with sport.
Tourism operators in Bali also expressed dismay over lost tourism receipts projected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars by Indonesia’s Minister of Tourism and the Creative Economy Sandiaga Uno.
The Israeli Olympic Committee, meanwhile, is demanding its athletes are allowed to compete at the World Beach Games. Israel also rejects having its athletes made subject to special conditions that were mooted by Indonesian Minister of Youth and Sports Dito Ariotedjo in a last-minute bid to save the world cup, like playing in empty stadiums, or not flying the Israeli flag and not playing the Israeli national anthem – which are banned in Indonesia.
The Olympic Council of Asia based in Dubai has officially signalled it is in acquiescence with Israel, saying the council “believes strongly in the power of sport to promote inclusion”.
But with less than two months until the World Beach Games begin, the organising body, the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC), refuses to say if Bali will lose its hosting rights if Israeli athletes are not allowed to attend and has described such questions as hypothetical.
“We have received assurances from the Indonesian Olympic Committee that all delegates and representatives will be provided undiminished and equal right to qualify, register and enter the Republic of Indonesia and the island of Bali,” an ANOC spokesperson told Al Jazeera, adding: “Discrimination will not be tolerated.”
Richard Baka, co-director of the Olympic Research Network at Victoria University in Australia, said it is logical the World Beach Games in Bali will be cancelled if Israel is not allowed to attend.
“The US and other countries would, I am fairly certain, support Israel,” he said.
An internationally recognised expert on Olympic games, Susan Brownell at the University of Missouri in St Louis concurs but suspects the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may step in.
“The ANOC, being headed by the Sheikh, would probably be happy to exclude Israel but the IOC might take action to prevent it,” she said, referring to The Olympic Council Of Asia president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, a powerful Kuwaiti Olympic powerbroker.
The IOC could also sanction Indonesia for violating the Olympic Charter, Brownell added.
“It happened when host Indonesia excluded Taiwan and Israel from the 1962 Asian Games. The IOC banned Indonesia from the 1964 Olympic Games along with any athletes who had competed there from subsequent competitions,” she said.
Heather Dichter, an associate professor of sport history at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom, said history is likely to repeat itself.
“The 1962 ban and more recently when the U-20 World Cup was taken away from the Indonesians give us a way to predict the future,” Dichter said.
If the World Beach Games goes the same way, “the options don’t look great” for the ANOC, she said, explaining that football tournaments are easier to relocate because so many countries have football stadiums but lack the infrastructure for multi-event competitions like the World Beach Games.
Ross Taylor, a former Western Australian Government Commissioner to Indonesia and founder of the Indonesian Institute, a think tank, told Al Jazeera that the dispute over the World Beach Games is “all about” the elections, but that the country and outgoing President Joko Widodo – known as Jokowi – will lose out if the games are cancelled.
“It will further harm Indonesia’s standing, and in particular Jokowi’s legacy,” he said.
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