Indonesia’s president said on Tuesday that Israel’s participation in the Under-20 World Cup to be hosted by his country meant no change to its foreign policy, stressing amid domestic protests that sport and politics should not be mixed.
Joko Widodo confirmed he had sent Erick Thohir, a cabinet minister and former Inter Milan chairman who heads the national football association (PSSI), to talk to soccer’s world governing body FIFA after the draw for next month’s tournament was cancelled over opposition to Israel taking part.
Jokowi, as the president is popularly known, underlined Indonesia’s support for Palestine and a two-state solution and said Israel’s qualification was secured 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 toward 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 have recently held marches demanding Israel be stopped from competing in the 24-team event from May 20-June 11.
Indonesia’s population is predominantly Muslim and most practice a moderate version of Islam, though a rise in religious conservatism has crept into politics in recent years.
PSSI on Sunday said this week’s draw for the tournament had been cancelled after the governor of the largely Hindu holiday island of Bali refused to host Israel’s team.
Governor Wayan Koster had urged the Ministry of Youth and Sports to “adopt a policy forbidding the Israeli team from competing in Bali”, media reported, citing a letter from Koster.
Koster’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The governor told media on Monday he was following a “government stance”. Israel’s football association has been contacted for comment.
A FIFA spokesperson said inspections of the tournament venues had concluded but did not comment on the PSSI chairman’s meeting or when a draw could be held.
Jokowi made no mention on Tuesday of what Erick would propose to FIFA.
On his Instagram page, Erick said the issue was “not an easy matter”.
The draw cancellation raised fears the country might lose its hosting rights and plunge Indonesian football into isolation again after 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 last year led to the deaths of 135 spectators, many crushed as they fled for exits after police fired tear gas into the crowd.
Muhadjir Effendy, the acting sports minister, late on Tuesday said 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.”