The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- What does the war in Lebanon mean for India'

The hostilities in west Asia make it imperative that the prime minister, Manmohan Singh travel to Havana in September to attend the next non-aligned summit. Already, hatchet men from New Delhi's pro-American lobby are sending subtle messages to the prime minister's office that he should consider skipping the Havana summit and, instead, head to New York for the 'neutral' ground of the United Nations General Assembly. Although there are no doubts about the military outcome of the latest flare-up in west Asia, the political and diplomatic fallout of the crisis in Lebanon and Gaza will have a lasting impact on the war on terror, the global dilemma over how to deal with Islam and the efforts worldwide to secure supplies of energy.

There is a sense of d'j' vu about the overwhelming military superiority of Israel over Lebanon in the current conflict. It is reminiscent of the United States of America's unchallenged superiority over Saddam Hussein's military in March 2003. US air force bombers, which brought 'shock and awe' to Baghdad, faced little resistance from the Iraqis. The advance of American ground forces through Iraq turned out to be easier than what even the Pentagon had anticipated. Yet, it can now be said with certainty that after he retires at the end of his presidential term in 2009, George W. Bush will helplessly watch from his ranch in Texas the emergence of the world's first Arab Shia republic in Iraq and an expansion of Iranian Shia influence in the region that such a republic represents.

Similarly, Israel will achieve a military victory over its adversaries in the current conflict. But just as in Iraq, the political results of this war are going to be the exact opposite of what Washington and Tel Aviv desire. By the time the war ends in a ceasefire ' perhaps earlier ' the Lebanese government, the only democracy in the Arab world, would have disintegrated, although it may nominally continue to exist, much as the so-called government of Somalia exists in the outpost of Baidoa, while the Somali capital of Mogadishu is controlled by Islamists. At the best of times, the influence of the legitimate Lebanese government over the whole country was questionable.

What is worse for America and Israel, Syria would have emerged as a central player in west Asia. At the time Israel began bombing Beirut, Syria's inexperienced president, Bashar al Assad, was in serious trouble. The way his government had been forced to pull out of Lebanon last year represented the biggest humiliation for Syria's Baathist regime since its last military defeat at the hands of Israel in 1973. Syria's experienced foreign minister through the Seventies and vice president since 1984, Abdul Halim Khaddam, one of the pillars of the regime of Bashar's father, Hafez al Assad, resigned, went into exile in Paris and had begun stoking fires of rare dissent against the government in Damascus.

There is little doubt that by the time a ceasefire comes into force in Lebanon, Bashar al Assad's government would have regained political relevance internationally and moral clout in the Arab world. Syria lost both with its departure from Lebanon and a string of domestic decisions, which persuaded Khaddam to turn his back on the young leader in Damascus. If the Lebanese government led by prime minister Fouad Siniora collapses, the Baathists in Damascus would once again have become the puppeteers behind any puppet government that emerges in Beirut, even if Syria's army does not physically come back into Lebanon.

All this ought to be of more than academic interest in New Delhi. What India can ignore, only at its peril, is a dramatic transformation in the nature of Arab-Israeli confrontation that has been in the making since September 11, 2001 irrevocably altered the Arab and Muslim view of America. Until the US president's unimaginative and clumsy handling of Islam in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington almost five years ago, Tel Aviv's main enemies, be it in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine or Egypt, were Arab nationalists. No more. If the Hizbollah, even if it is militarily emasculated, emerges as the dominant political force in Lebanon on the rubble of that country's destruction, it would mean that Israel's main enemy to the north will no longer be mere Lebanese or Arab nationalists: they will be radical Islamists. Moreover, they will be Shiite Islamists.

Already, in Gaza, where Israel is fighting on a second front, the nature of Palestinian nationalism has changed. The Hamas is unlike the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah, with its largely secular leadership or George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which had a large Christian element in its brains trust. For the first time since the creation of the state of Israel, it is facing a formidable, wholly radical Islamist enemy in Palestinian territories.

For India, which is still recovering from the July 11 bomb blasts, all this is something to sit up and think about. In the past, a threat to Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque brought Muslim demonstrators on Indian streets, but such protests were not very different from the demonstrations that Communist parties organized in 1967 in support of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, a friend of India and a pioneer of the non-aligned movement. Until a few years ago, support in Hyderabad's Old City or Mumbai's Byculla for those who have been fighting against Israel stemmed from Islamic solidarity mixed with a tinge of opposition to neo-colonialism.

No more. The recent transformation in the nature of such support mirrors the change that Israel is witnessing in Lebanon and in Palestine. For proof, look no farther than Kerala, where the Muslim League was routed in its strongholds in the recent state assembly elections.

Just as al Qaida is no longer an organization or a movement in the conventional sense, but an ideology ' and, therefore, doubly dangerous ' one lesson from the Mumbai bombings is that Islamic dissent in India is changing from conventional opposition to an ideological protest along al Qaida lines. As long as terrorism against India was organized by the Pakistani state, India could manage it, just as it did in Punjab, but such terror is clearly slipping out of Pakistani state control and India may find that difficult to handle. After the Kerala poll, two state Congress leaders met Sonia Gandhi on June 22 and emphasized to her the need for the United Progressive Alliance government to demonstrate to India's minorities that the country was not cosying up to America.

This is not an unreasonable demand. Just as Israel will have to reasonably accommodate the aspirations of its Arab population and those of its Lebanese and Palestinian neighbours at the end of its current fight, the Manmohan Singh government will have to listen to Kerala's Congress leaders like M.M. Hassan, who met the party president on June 22 or face the prospect of more July-11-type incidents in the country. From Malaysia to Morocco, for Muslims, America is the no.1 enemy today. To ignore that sentiment in a country with around 140 million Muslims is to ignore a sizeable segment of public opinion.

Of course, India has to strengthen its relations with Washington in its own interest. But one way of doing that without offending Islamic sentiment is for the prime minister to go to Havana ' where the Islamic countries will play a key role in the next NAM summit ' and to defer to Indian Muslim sentiment by supporting the low-cost option of an inevitable NAM consensus both on west Asia and on Iran's nuclear programme.

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