Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had an unexpected meeting with the leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization on Thursday.
Yahya Staquf, secretary general of the 60 million member Nahdlatul Ulama, is visiting Israel at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee, a US advocacy group.
Staquf, an advocate of interfaith coexistence, met with several religious leaders this week. However, the meeting with Netanyahu was not listed on his schedule.
Netanyahu boasted of Israel's warming ties with Muslim countries, saying "I hope that we have some movement with Indonesia."
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, and support for the Palestinians there is strong. Staquf’s presence has triggered angry reactions, as seen on Indonesian social media.
Indonesia recently revoked tourist visas for Israeli visitors to protest Israeli actions in Gaza. In response, Israel has threatened to ban tourist visas for Indonesians.
But in an interview, Staquf said he remains committed to the visit and hopes the controversy can bring more attention to his message of tolerance.
“Some people here are amazed by my decision to come, because they think it must be dangerous for this man to come, thinking that many, many Muslims must be threatening him with death or something,” Staquf told the Associated Press.
Earlier this week, Staquf addressed the American Jewish Committee’s conference, appearing alongside a rabbi in his discussion. His schedule also included meetings at Israel’s Hebrew University, and talks with local Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders as well. There were no meetings with Israeli politicians listed on his schedule.
Staquf said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the sole focus of his trip. Instead, he looks at interfaith cooperation as a basis for solving many conflicts, including in Myanmar, where 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled persecution by the country’s security forces to Bangladesh.
But Staquf remains aware of the “magnitude” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We are facing a civilizational problem here, and it is related to religions,” Staquf said. “As Muslims, we want to do our part related to our religion.”
Staquf said he has identified portions of Islam that he considers problematic, including how Muslims interact with non-Muslims. He said there needs to be “a new discourse” to recognize that Muslims and non-Muslims are equal and should be able to coexist peacefully.
“These elements are problematic because they are not compatible anymore with the current reality of our civilization,” he said.
In Indonesia, Twitter and Facebook have been filled with negative comments about the visit. Many are upset about the situation in Gaza, where over 120 Palestinians have been killed during protests along the Israeli border over the past two months.
A montage of Staquf’s photo, and the Israeli and NU flags, has gone viral online. It is captioned: “When Muslims are wounded by an Israeli attack, the NU representative goes to Israel. This visit is a form of recognition of the State of Israel, hurting the hearts of Muslims and Palestinians.”
Taufiqulhadi, a member of parliament from the National Democratic Party, one of the parties in the government coalition, said “the majority of Indonesians” do not want diplomatic relations with Israel.
In a letter to Indonesia’s foreign minister that was published online, Staquf said the government could “deny” his actions if deemed harmful to state interests. “But if there is a ‘benefit,’ let’s follow it up to be a real advantage.”