A task for India, Israel and Syria

M.L. Sondhi

The Pioneer, September 24, 1997

The disruption of the peace process in West Asia is not of peripheral concern to India. The Oslo accord was welcomed in India not only because it promised to bring peace and security to an area with which India shares historic links, but also because after India had upgraded its relations with Israel, the Rabin-Peres approach provided New Delhi with political space to begin a new phase of activism which included participation in the multilateral arm of the West Asian peace process. A mood of pessimism has now descended on the area and although the United States will continue to play bridge-building role as evidenced by Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s recent efforts. Washington will be increasingly frustrated by the exercise which entails a range of complexities and uncertainties which repel US sensitivities traumatised by the experience of Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and other trouble spots of the post-Cold War world. The sole superpower cannot produce a diplomatic miracle reminiscent of Camp David since neither Netanyahu nor Arafat have meaningful leadership capabilities of the calibre of President Sadat of Egypt.

What we are seeing is the collapse of superpower diplomacy and conflict management in situations where facts cannot be arranged neatly into patterns required by a policy of ‘engagement’. Does an alternative for progress in West Asia exist?

Despite their deep differences, Israel and Syria have one feature in common, namely adequate political and military infrastructure for back channel communication and risk-taking to give a new form to the peace process. Of course it will not be easy to remove bitterness and suspicion. But India could place its bet for the future on the untying of the Golan knot by Syria and Israel with some facilitation by New Delhi. As long as India did not have embassy-level relations with Israel, there was hardly any room for manoeuvre for New Delhi, but now India is well equipped to make a realistic examination of possible alternatives for securing justice and economic advancement for the Arabs and for fully meeting the security needs of Israel. By focusing exclusively on Iraq, Iran and Egypt, the nature of India’s post-Cold War foreign policy towards West Asia has been one-sided, while the focus on the Palestinians has been somewhat artificial since Yasser Arafat simply does not have the breadth of vision and confidence of Hafez Al Assad, whether in dealing with security problems of Syria or with unrest in Lebanon. India has fully supported UN Resolution 242 and 338 and has always been sympathetic to Assad’s wishes for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. At the same time in the recent past India has deepened its strategic relations with Israel in pursuit of peace and security, and a shared commitment to liberal democracy.

We may therefore legitimately speculate whether India could play the role of facilitator (not mediator or negotiator) for reducing the gap between Damascus and Jerusalem. It has been long conjectured that both Syria and Israel have been maintaining an informal dialogue through their respective ambassadors in Washington. Indian diplomats in Damascus have been aware of the substantial progress in bilateral relations and the discussion of prudent confidence-building measures and arms control techniques between the two ‘hostile neighbours’. India should continue to resist any temptation to play an overt role, but it can strengthen its position as a persuasive facilitator by encouraging both Assad and Netanhayu in the direction of restraint and arms control. India’s strength lies in the fact that it has no regional hegemonic ambitions. It is one of the few countries which had relevant expertise to facilitate effective negotiations, especially through informal channels.

In 1993 Rabin himself was quite optimistic about an imminent peace with Assad, and in 1994 it seemed as if a start would be made with an Israeli pullback from four Druze villages on the Golan Heights. It is arguable that had Rabin lived, he would have moved forward with Assad as a dialogue partner if the momentum with the Palestinians had been halted. The full implications of the political-psychological difficulties in the way of the Israeli-Palestinian relations were not recognised, and whether it was Faisal Husseini or Hanna Ashrawi or Yasser Arafat himself, it is clear they have all been severely constrained by the Israelis on the one side and the Hamas on the other.

For his part Assad has of course changed his assessments about the possibilities of war and peace, but he has always offered a more sophisticated understanding of the elements of a political settlement than any of the other political actors ranged against Israel. For many thoughtful Israelis, after the recent gruesome bombings, Assad’s political discourse has suddenly become relevant and can indeed provide a framework for the future, although his involvement with the Hizbollah and Jibril terror outfits is anathema to the Jewish people.

India does not have to assess the capabilities and weaknesses of the Israeli and Syrian sides. New Delhi has to take a pragmatic stand so that Syria and Israel can be helped to gain a long term perspective in which their own stable expectations of reciprocal restraint can come to fruition. Ever since the 1989 Taif Agreement brokered by the Arab League, Syrian decision makers have learned to manage crises with considerable assurance. Arguably Assad could have played a more central role in the peace process if the Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Hoist had linked himself to the Syrian rather than the Palestinian track. It is right to be profoundly cautious about any peacekeeping role that India may play, yet it does seem relevant to recall India’s potential which was historically demonstrated in the days of super-power rivalry in Korea and the Congo, and earlier in the case of the transfer of power from the Netherlands to Indonesia.

India can derive political advantage from the efficacy of international norms to which she ordinarily adheres, to reinforce stability and promote peace in West Asia, by catalyzing and facilitating an Israeli-Syrian dialogue. Whatever India’s domestic difficulties, New Delhi is perceived in political, economic and strategic circles on both sides as a stabilizing factor for international peace and security.

India can provide a way out of the present impasse by reshaping the tone and content of its own approach and work for attitudinal change along the following lines:

A lack of choice has been at the root of the distortions in Israeli foreign policy. David Ben Gurion had a compelling vision of Israel in Asia, but was hampered by circumstances in translating this vision into reality. After the exclusion of Israel from the Bandung conference, he felt that the Asian perspective was unnecessarily neglected by the Israeli establishment. The present impasse is also the product of the long period of Israeli isolation from Asia, which has only recently been overcome with the upgradation of relations with India and China. The legacy of Eurocentricism brings some benefits to Israel, but it also creates adherence to certain conceptual terminology and behavioural norms which have perverse effects on its psyche of insecurity.

The animosity against Israel will not disappear overnight, but it would dispel some of the clouds that hang over the security landscape if Israeli diplomacy could search for ways of looking at international relations. An Arab Levant with its pivot in Damascus would strengthen national independence for Arabs and would find it easier to coexist with an Israel which begins to downplay its Europeanness. Unfortunately the Indian role and experience in West Asia had some serious weaknesses which prevented it from expressing sympathy or understanding for Israeli national independence although diplomatists like Sardar K.M. Pannikar had supported Israel for both political and strategic reasons. We need to ponder the principles articulated by Pannikar for building a new record of achievement with Israelis and Arabs, both in elite circles and amongst the broader publics.

India can help to avoid a head-on collision over Arab and Jewish demands after the failure of the Oslo arrangement. It is useful to go back to Ben Gurion and Pannikar primarily because this enables revitalising the Asian element and emphasises certain core values which may encourage greater dialogue and facilitate solutions and develop face-saving means of ceasing hostilities, including terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Press comment from the United States during the Albright visit to the West Bank area betrays a most cynical assessment and concludes that Washington should leave events to take what course they will if Netanhayu and Arafat are hellbent on confrontation. From India’s point of view this spells disaster because an out and out conflict in the West Asian area could have the most grave consequences for Indian economy and society. New Delhi should therefore play the diplomatic card with Netanyahu and Assad and open a chapter of quiet diplomacy to help identify and balance the interest of Syria and Israel. A settlement on the Golan Heights would separate a volatile conflicted issue and provide a fresh context for an overall political solution. Is Indian diplomacy up to the task?
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