M.L. Sondhi

The Pioneer, February 14, 1992

In the past 40 years, India's perceptions of West Asia have not been determined by geopolitical considerations in a multi-dimensional manner but only by "special-relationship" policies based upon the "heroic" struggle of the Arabs against colonialism. There was nothing inherently unreasonable in this situation provided it had been reciprocated by the Arab side.

The "special relationship" doctrine of India's Arab policy did not, however, provide adequate incentives to Arabs to come out in India's favour when there was a confrontation of conflicting interests with Pakistan or China, although they recognized the validity of the Indian view on the macro-politics of the Third World.

Thus, the pro-Arab tilt introduced an effective constraint on India's freedom of choice during Indira Gandhi's era. The country remained at a perpetual disadvantage vis--vis both the Arab world and Israel.

Indira Gandhi's successors including her son Rajiv Gandhi began to register the conceptual unwillingness of the Arabs to undertake a reinterpretation of their position towards India which would lead to mutual and balanced diplomatic partnerships. The reluctance of the Ministry of External Affairs to have full diplomatic relations with Israel, was part of an inherently ambivalent mentality which anchored itself to the out-dated ideas of the Nonaligned Movement.

Rajiv Gandhi's tennis diplomacy with Israel indicated that a historic shift would occur in South Block's traditional opposition to the warming of Indo-Israel relations and lead to a more structured understanding of India's security needs on the part of the Arabs. Unfortunately, when the pro-Arab lobby in New Delhi started a barrage of propaganda against the tennis-diplomacy, Rajiv Gandhi back-tracked and called off the visit of the Indian tennis team to Israel. This was not in the best long term interests of India or Israel, nor for that matter, of the Arabs.

The Narasimha Rao government's decision to fully upgrade the India-Israel relationship is undoubtedly a breakthrough, but it will not achieve results unless there is a total overview of Indian diplomacy to West Asia. There is surely some incongruity in allowing the Arabs or Palestinians to set themselves up as the arbiters of Indian policy towards Israel.

There is no gainsaying the fact that India has its commitment and responsibilities towards the Palestinians, but it would be a mistake for it to conduct its diplomacy towards Israel as an nth Arab State. India will have to work out a comprehensive crisis-management approach in which New Delhi gains the reputation of being impartial rather than viscerally anti-Israel. The diplomatic focus will naturally be on how India supports the West Asia Peace Process initiated at Madrid and whether it will help both the opposing parties to overcome the prevailing 'zero-sum' assumptions.

It will also be flawed and unrealistic to ignore India's own vital stake in the stabilization of the Middle East where the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism will exert a negative effect by eroding values of democracy and human rights elsewhere.

What leverage does India have over Israel? The persecution and oppression of Jews in Europe and the very different experience of the diaspora in India provides the reference point for an embryonic policy of a common Asian political dialogue. Analysis of the course of events shows that time and again ever since the Bandung Conference, Israel wanted to enter Asia but its efforts have been frustrated. The Indian stance can contribute towards the reinduction of Israel into Asia. This would be compatible with the stronger political cooperation of Israel with China, Japan and South Korea.

The danger, however, is that India could get into moralistic protestations about Jerusalem or pin its hopes on the United States pressure on Israel to make concessions. It would be preferable for India to make a careful study of all the possible convergences and conflicts on the Jerusalem issue before showing excessive enthusiasm for the Arab position.

Indian diplomacy also needs to recognize the inherent logic of Israel as a Jewish state. It does not help to regard the Jewishness of Israel as an anachronistic turn towards theocracy, with its democratically elected institutions which continuously function even during war periods, and an active public opinion. Israel has as much a secular-democratic character as India. Its polity includes Muslims. Druzes, Christians, Bahais and other minority groups.

More than anything else, however, Israel has the primary function of providing a sanctuary for the Jews who have surffered persecution all over the world. The political legitimization of Israel cannot, therefore be understood without comprehending its perennial concern for the Jewish people. Furthermore Israel has evolved slowly, ambiguously, but definitely towards a Middle Eastern (or West Asian) personality.

Over the years Isarel has fairly successfully identified the contours of the challenges it has faced from the Arabs, the Iranians and the Turks, and has mobilized political and military resources for establishing a framework of open or back-channel diplomatic exchanges and negotiations. Rather than the Indian perception of monolithic Arab unity - the Nasserist governing image - the Israeli perception of the Middle East as a mosaic is more sophisticated and closer to reality.

It is not too farfetched to suggest that once India and Israel realize that both countries want a secure peace, they can cooperate to enhance each other's basic strategic assets. The central point of reference on either side should be self-interest, and more pragmatic approaches can also encompass a wide range of cultural, scientific and intellectual cooperation that can accompany a strong emphasis on expanding business ties.

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