Arafat’s search for new legitimacy

M.L. Sondhi

The Pioneer, New Delhi, November 22, 1997

In spite of the socialist Third World rhetoric recently heard in the capital, the spirit of non-alignment seems to have evaporated from New Delhi. For decades, the PLO and India have used the slogans and war cries of NAM as rationales for strengthening the legitimacy of their mutual concern for peace and security in West Asia. But today the values, symbols and myths of NAM no longer form the backdrop for the guiding principles of Indian foreign policy. India’s sources and responses to international and regional conflicts now form the subject matter of ‘strategic dialogues’ and common agendas’ with other major players in the global and regional playing fields, and real politik cannot be ignored when formulating new policy initiatives and setting the strategic agenda.

There is a consensus of views in the foreign policy community in New Delhi on India’s interests in Kashmir, and on India’s place in the post-Cold War world as a future permanent member of the Security Council. Thus New Delhi can strongly support the Syrian demand for the return of the Golan Heights as voiced by President Assad, because India also would like to strengthen its geopolitical environment by articulating the demand for the return of its territory occupied by Pakistan and China.

But there are obvious examples of problems that can arise for India if New Delhi indiscriminately uses a vocabulary which obfuscates between terms like autonomy and sovereignty for mitigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The collapse of the Oslo peace process is certainly of grave concern to India, but New Delhi cannot just bail out Mr. Arafat by blinding supporting the PLO’s interests through negotiating strategies and tactics against Israel as she was doing in the Cold War days.

In other words, India can no longer afford the luxury of engaging in rhetorical exercises typical of the non-aligned era. The recent verbal excesses of a relatively junior Minister in the Gujral government, Mr. Salim Sherwani, were clearly an anomaly when it was reported that he agreed in Riyadh that “India and Saudi Arabia are opposed to the use of a military option against Iraq as a means to end the Gulf crisis arising from Baghdad’s refusal to allow UN sponsored inspectors on its soil.” It is too early to say whether Mr. Sherwani was expressing Indian policy on inspection of Iraq’s germ warfare programmes including preparation of the deadly anthrax as weapons of mass destruction, or voicing his own opinions. In either case it does not strengthen India’s commitment to global stability or her claim to a UN Security Council seat when hyperbolic presumptions are articulated as policy by junior ministers.

India can certainly take a serious interest in Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas and use its influence as a major power to encourage the Netanyahu government to focus on the commitments made when Yitzak Rabin signed the peace treaty. At the same time a recalibration of PLO policy in India is needed to find a new basis of legitimacy which is related to the new post-Cold War international landscape.

Neither Israel nor the PLO can expect to enlist India’s help for developing adversarial power balances in West Asia, but there is a favourable opportunity for South Block to develop a compelling rationale for constructive Indian involvement in Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, and also for an Indian role in the economic stabilisation and transformation of the Palestinian territory. India is also well equipped to deal with milieu goals encompassing environmental issues, democratic political order and constitutional development in developing societies.

Mr. Arafat should therefore understand that the Gujral government is not in a position to introduce Third World or non-aligned concepts in the next round of negotiations between him and the Netanyahu government. The practical course open to New Delhi is to go back to some of the ideas generated by the last Labour government of Simon Peres in an effort to bridge the divide and to help both the parties to pursue and conclude negotiations. India cannot claim a pivotal role in this effort, but it can certainly help to put certain issues in proper historical context, particularly those articulated by Yossi Beilin, the Minister concerned with the peace process in the Simon Peres Government. He had, as part of his efforts for a breakthrough, also canvassed support for his proposals in India. As recapitulated by Beilin, he and Arafat’s deputy Mahmoud Abbas had agreed on the following conditions:

i)             The Palestinians would agree to establish their capital in Abu Dis, a suburb of East Jerusalem while dropping their demand for its location in Jerusalem proper, whose sovereignty would continue to vest in Israel.

ii)             Israel would agree to the creation of a de-militarised Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the option that the state would eventually enter into a confederation with Jordan.

iii)            The Palestinians would accept the Israeli demand to deploy troops along the Jordan River.

iv)             The territory on which 70% of the Jewish settlers live in the West bank would be annexed to Israel, in exchange for which Israel would give the Palestinians some territory near the Gaza Strip.

v)                    It was agreed in principle that no Jewish settlements would be dismantled and Israel would make special security arrangements for those settlers remaining under Palestinian rule.

From the perspective of the security policy being pursued by the Netanyahu Government, some aspects of the Yossi Beilin-Mahmoud Abbas proposals are clearly outdated. Netanyahu’s withdrawal from Hebron and his government’s efforts to build Israeli housing at Har Homa have both highlighted the potential conflict in the interests of the concerned parties, and showed, during the process of implementation, that many of the assumptions of the Oslo accords were fundamentally flawed. It would be counter-productive for India to moralise either to Netanyahu or to Arafat. However the essence of the political problematique between the Israelis and the Palestinians has not changed. India is not just an onlooker in West Asia. Her own desire for prosperity and her quest for a peaceful 21st century require that India make an active contribution to the consolidation and development of an Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli cooperative relationship.

While it is true that Indo-Arab cooperation has a long tradition, collaboration between India and Israel has proceeded rapidly after establishment of diplomatic relations and is most visible in the fields of science and technology related to agricultural development and environmental protection.

In some ways New Delhi would be the ideal venue for a Madrid II conference which could pave the way to a partnership for peace in West Asia if the complexity and multi-dimensionality of the current developments in both West Asia and South Asia could be comprehended at the level of systematic linkages. Perhaps Mr. Yasser Arafat could make a beginning during his forthcoming visit to India, by enabling an expanded dimension to the India-PLO relationship by demonstrating a resolute political will to strengthen the democratic process in Palestinian politics.

From India’s point of view, Mr. Arafat’s reluctance so far to understand the internal contradictions in Pakistan has been somewhat worrisome. Instead of pussyfooting about the lack of democracy in Pakistan it would be helpful if he were more forthcoming and declaratory about the Palestinian National Authority’s own dedication to the foundations of democracy, and at the same time take a forthright stand on the danger and disorder that Pakistan has been creating in Kashmir.

During his visit to India in 1997, the Israeli President, Ezer Weizman had himself suggested that India could be the bridge between Israel and the Palestinians, and had urged India to help the Palestinians with technology and skilled manpower. The time is ripe for President Arafat to reciprocate Weizman’s sentiments and use his Indian visit to articulate new options and a vision for sustainable development and security in West Asia.
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