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STRATEGIC MISTAKES

- Rightwing Indian Arab policy is founded on a misconception

If Sushma Swaraj believed that television images beamed to Gulf countries of the external affairs minister seated next to Najma Heptullah during the Rajya Sabha debate on the Gaza violence would make up for the perception among Indians, from Oman to Saudi Arabia and beyond, that the Narendra Modi government was unduly tilting towards Israel, she could not have been more mistaken. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s core constituency mule-headedly wants India to be tied to Israel by an umbilical cord. But Arab countries expect the new government to break from stereotypes like the Heptullah-Swaraj image in mollycoddling them. Meaningless symbols have substituted substance in India’s Arab policy for far too long.

Swaraj, as a consummate politician, should have realized that Modi’s minister for minority affairs is a left over from that kind of past which the 2014 general election campaign promised to bury and turn over a new leaf. The external affairs minister should have known better than to assume that the Arab world is so gullible about India as to be taken in by her image spin of proximity to another of those self-styled representatives of Indian Muslims that heads of state or government and foreign ministers in West Asia are truly tired of.

The Rajya Sabha debate on Gaza was a chance to articulate a new Indian vision on West Asia, but the Modi government simply blew that chance. Perhaps it was only to be expected because the Bharatiya Janata Party’s huge handicap in dealing with Jews and the Jewish diaspora is that the party’s understanding of Israel and its policies, especially of Tel Aviv’s India policy, has no relation to ground realities. Worse, the present government grossly underestimates India’s strength in dealing with Israel. That was abundantly in evidence in Parliament’s treasury benches throughout the debate on Gaza.

For years, the BJP has carried a curious diplomatic baggage on Israel and it has now brought that baggage into the government: that baggage is an albatross in the form of a poorly informed belief that New Delhi and Tel Aviv have a shared view on nuclear issues simply because neither country has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. For several decades, Israelis in senior positions in their governments and in high standing outside their governments have told me that beyond a common refusal to sign the NPT, the two countries do not share anything or see eye to eye on nuclear proliferation. India has refused to sign the NPT because it believes that the treaty is discriminatory and that nuclear non-proliferation as an issue must be addressed globally. Successive governments in New Delhi have rejected a notion that the “big five” nuclear powers have attempted to promote and pressure India with: that proliferation in South Asia must be addressed regionally between India and Pakistan or, at a stretch, including China as well — recognizing, of course, that China has the ‘right’ to possess nuclear weapons under the NPT.

For Israel, which takes a diametrically opposite position, nuclear proliferation is a regional issue. Israel has no problem — unlike India — with the United States of America or the United Kingdom having nuclear weapons and preventing countries other than the “big five” from benefiting from advanced nuclear technology, even for peaceful purposes. The day Israel is assured that no Arab country can have access to bomb-making technology it will sign the NPT as many times as the international community demands of it.

But many Indians have never understood this critical difference. Of course, the Israelis have cleverly obfuscated on this issue because it eminently suits them to do so, misleading or confusing Indian public opinion by fostering the myth that their two countries stand shoulder to shoulder on nuclear matters. In the process, Tel Aviv has taken gullible Indians in public life, including several BJP Rajya Sabha members who spoke on Gaza in Parliament, for a nice little ride over this subtlety.

A small news item in several newspapers a few days ago ought to have opened the eyes of BJP stalwarts who want Modi and Swaraj to change India’s policy towards Israel and the Arab world: they appear to have no qualms that the changes they are championing would reduce New Delhi to a poodle of Tel Aviv and the Jewish lobby in America. The news item in question was about the Israeli embassy in the capital cancelling its iftar that was scheduled for July 24. “Iftar? At the Israeli embassy?” one BJP leader wondered in complete and genuine innocence, in a conversation with me the day after newspapers carried the story.

Every politician is not — and need not be — an expert on foreign policy or international affairs, so this BJP leader and a legion of others like him in the party may be excused for not knowing that Israel has a large Arab population as its full-fledged citizens and that many of these Arabs are Muslims who freely practice their religion, which has more in common with Judaism than with Hinduism or any faith with similar customs or traditions.

Unknown to many BJP faithfuls, Jews relate to Islam much more than they relate to Hinduism if only because the former two faiths have the same roots. Now that the BJP is in government and is likely to be in power for at least five years, it is imperative that, minimally, its legislators, and others who are tasked to talk on issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict, are tutored in some basic facts about Israel: more importantly, the crux of where India’s real interests lie in dealings with the Jewish state.

During multiple visits to Israel — including Track II visits — in the last two decades since New Delhi established full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, I have been told by many Israelis — including rabbis, strategic thinkers and those who shape public opinion in that country — that Indians are under a great delusion about Israeli policy. That delusion is that Indians wrongly assume that Israelis are anti-Muslim. Scratch any Israeli Jew and he is anti-Arab or, at least, suspicious to the point of being ambivalent about Arabs, including Israeli citizens of Arab descent. That is significantly different from being anti-Muslim. True, the Arabs want to wipe Israel off the map, but many of these Arabs are Christians, Druze and followers of faiths other than Islam. In fact, in the 1970s, when the Palestinians were a thorn on the side of the Jewish state with a greater ferocity than in later years, the Christian groups among the Palestinians did greater damage to Israel in real terms than any Muslim outfits.

Like the nuclear issue, this is a subtle distinction that is lost on BJP leaders, including some of those who spoke in the Rajya Sabha on the Gaza debate. During the 1990s, when I lived in New Delhi, one Israeli ambassador told me that he had made it his mission to befriend at least one new Indian Muslim family every month. In their blissful ignorance about Israel, that is perhaps more than what can be said about some vocal BJP leaders who now want the Modi government to tilt categorically towards the Jewish state.

It is true that changes have taken place in Israeli attitudes to Islam since the September 11 terrorist attacks that transformed the world. But those changes have been forced on Israeli policies largely by radical Islamists: fundamentally, the attitude of the Jews towards Islam remains unchanged and is at variance with that of the BJP, which mistakenly assumes, at various levels, that Israel and India ought to share a common hostility towards Islam.

As in the nuclear issue, Israel has found it expedient to let BJP leaders and fellow-travelers live with the notion that New Delhi and Tel Aviv are natural allies in a common cause against Islam. It eminently suits the Jewish lobby to foster such a mistaken notion. Unless the Modi government is alive to the dangers of such misconceptions India will come a cropper in protecting its vital interests in West Asia. The Rajya Sabha debate on Gaza was a warning to educate right-wing opinion on this critical issue.