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Opinion - Foreign Relations


India and the West Asian dilemma

G. Parthasarathy

The new government in Delhi should not heed to the voices suggesting a re-think of relationship with Israel. Bilateral trade with Israel has reached around $1.3 billion. Israel has played a key role in the conclusion of over 200 agreements for agricultural development in India in such crucial areas as drip irrigation, greenhouse technology and horticulture. Of course, this should not mean neglecting relations with Arab friends, says G. Parthasarathy.

THERE WERE some interesting nuances in the approach of major political parties to the situation in West Asia during the recent general elections. For over four decades, virtually all political parties, except the BJP (that took a contrary pro-Israeli line), routinely condemned Israel for its alleged acts of omission and commission.

But neither the NDA nor the Congress(I) followed this practice during the recent election campaign. The Communist Party of India (CPI) avoided all mention of the Palestinian issue in its manifesto, though it continued with its ritualistic opposition to "imperialist military and economic aggression".

Even the CPI(M) made no mention of the Palestinian issue in its manifesto, though it proclaimed its opposition to the alleged "strategic alliance" that the Vajpayee Government had concluded with Israel. And even this "alliance" was opposed only because it "follows the RSS view that a US-Israel-India Axis would serve the interests of Hindutva".

In these circumstances, it was peculiar to see both the CPI and the CPI (M) stress the importance of the Palestinian issue when the coalition partners of the UPA were drafting their Common Minimum Programme (CMP). One even heard calls to end military collaboration with Israel.

This posture emerged in the public view after the first draft of the CMP presented by the Congress(I) made no reference to the Palestinian issue. It was in deference to these postures that the common minimum programme proclaimed that "the UPA Government reiterates India's decades-old commitment to the cause of the Palestinian people for a homeland of their own". It is obvious that those who drafted this formulation were somewhat ignorant of the nuances of contemporary developments. India and the international community no longer endorse the cause of a mere Palestinian "homeland". They demand the establishment of a "viable Palestinian State".

It is evident that on national security issues such as our nuclear deterrent, nuclear disarmament and our relations with China and the US, the two Communist parties adopt postures that portray a total lack of realism and understanding of the contemporary world.

They advocate that India should discard its time tested policies of seeking nuclear disarmament exclusively on a global and non-discriminatory basis and recommend that we should yield to American and Chinese pressures by accepting regional nuclear disarmament in South Asia.

They conveniently ignore the fact that it is China that has provided Pakistan the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons and has supplied our western neighbour with missiles that can devastate Indian towns and cities. They also oppose India acquiring capabilities for missile defences that could protect our cities against attacks by Chinese missiles supplied to Pakistan, should Pakistan's nuclear arsenal fall into the wrong hands.

It is a similar lack of understanding that leads the two Left parties to their criticism of our recent policies on Arab-Israeli issues. India recognised the State of Israel in 1950. But it took over four decades before we established full diplomatic relations with Israel.

In the meantime, discreet contacts were maintained with Israel in capitals like Washington and through the Israeli Consulate in Mumbai. Indira Gandhi flatly rejected a Saudi Arabian demand in 1974 that we should close the Israeli Consulate even though we were then faced with a severe balance of payments crisis.

We had earlier sought and obtained arms for Israel just after the 1965 conflict with Pakistan. It is also worth mentioning that the supply of nuclear capable F-16s by the US to Pakistan in 1981 was seen as a security threat not only by us, but also by pro-Israeli groups such as the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which joined us in lobbying against this sale.

Thus, if there is a "US-Israel-India Axis," as the CPI(M) and the Pakistani claim, this so called "axis" has played an important role in promoting understanding of our security concerns in the US and elsewhere.

Our ties with Israel have expanded significantly over the past decade. Dr Manmohan Singh, Mr Arjun Singh, Mr P Chidambaram and Mr Sharad Pawar have visited Israel during this period. Our annual bilateral trade with Israel has reached around $1.3 billion. Israel has played a key role in the conclusion of over 200 agreements for agricultural development in India in such crucial areas as drip irrigation, greenhouse technology and horticulture.

It is in recognition of the importance of Israeli investments and collaboration in these fields that Mr Jyoti Basu visited Israel in August 2000, just before he relinquished office. Both China and India have developed extensive defence ties with Israel.

While as a result of American pressures Israel could not sell advanced AWACS systems to China, it agreed to their sale to India. These systems mounted on Russian aircraft are crucial for our air defence. They are reportedly being assembled in Uzbekistan.

Is the CPI(M) going to criticise this agreement as constituting an "India-Israel-Russia-Uzbekistan Axis"? It is also pertinent to stress that in view of the continuing Sino-Pak nuclear and missile nexus, New Delhi should not close the option of obtaining missile defences from any source, including Israel. The Defence Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherji, has rightly rejected suggestions for a review of defence collaboration with Israel.

Developing military, economic and security ties with Israel should not create a situation where we neglect our relations with our Arab friends.

It is a fact that we have tended to neglect our relations with the very friendly governments in most Arab Gulf States. Over 3.5 million Indians live in these kingdoms and we get over 70 per cent of our oil from this region.

We have made some beginnings in developing institutional links with the Gulf Cooperation Council. These need to be developed. Most importantly, we need to cultivate the rulers and royal families of these states much more assiduously that we have done in recent years.

With the situation in Iraq set to deteriorate thanks to continued American bungling and insensitivity, we will have to keep a close watch on developments in this region and fashion imaginative links-political, economic and military, with the Arab Gulf States.

The continuing terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and the prospects of instability there require us to fashion a cooperative and comprehensive approach to issues of energy security, both with the oil producers in the region and major importers of oil such as the US, the EU, Japan, China and South Korea.

Further to the west, we should seek wider economic and investment ties with countries such as Jordan, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia especially as India remains a growing market for their exports of phosphatic fertilisers.

No foreign policy can be devoid of a moral content. Even if we have good reasons for friendship with Israel we should not hesitate to voice our opposition to Israeli actions like the demolition of homes of innocent Palestinians. It is equally important to advise our Palestinian friends to curb the excesses of groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. The success of our diplomacy would lie in being seen both by Israel and the Palestinians as a constructive voice urging moderation and seeking negotiated settlements.

It is also important to bear in mind that with the exception of few countries like Algeria, some of our Arab friends and particularly Saudi Arabia have shown no sensitivity to our concerns, when they join the chorus in adopting anti-India postures on Kashmir in forums such as the OIC. Saudi Arabia's role in getting OIC endorsement of the Pakistan backed extremists who have left the mainstream Hurriyat Conference is a matter of particular concern. Friendship cannot, forever, be a one-way street.

(The author is former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)

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