The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, visited India early in September. He had to cut short his visit and return to Israel because of incidents of excessive violence against Israeli civilians by Palestinian militants. His visit generated considerable controversy within India and critical reaction from the Islamic and Arab countries. The political significance of the visit needs no extra emphasis. This was the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to India, although the president of Israel and the foreign minister of Israel have visited India during the last decade.
While judging the validity or otherwise of the critical reaction to Sharon’s visit, the basic question to be asked is whether the criticism was against the existence and expansion of Indo-Israeli relations or whether it was a reaction to the persona of Ariel Sharon. It is obvious that the criticism was not about the existentialist reality of Indo-Israeli relations which have evolved in a positive manner over the last decade. It is Sharon’s personal background and the timing of his visit which attracted criticism.
Objectively speaking, Sharon has a hawkish and aggressive anti-Palestinian reputation exceeding even that of the former prime minister, Menechem Begin. It is clear that Sharon is the architect of policies which have destroyed the Oslo peace process that was supposed to evolve into some kind of a solution to the Palestinian problem. That such a person should come to India for high-level discussions is certainly questionable because it was the Oslo process which led to India establishing formal diplomatic and political relations with Israel.
The timing of the visit was equally unfortunate because it took place soon after the Israeli cabinet took a decision that the removal of the chairman, Yasser Arafat, from the power structure of the Palestine Liberation Organization was an imperative to resolve Israeli antagonism against the Palestinian people. The visit took place in the context of increasing violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and in the background of attempts by the United States of America and the United Kingdom to qualitatively erode Arafat’s authority by compelling him to nominate Mehmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.
Soon after Abbas’s appointment, he tried to distance himself from Arafat and showed a willingness to fall in line with the Western road map for a solution to the problems of west Asia, an approach which has no support from the Palestinians. The result was Abbas having to resign his post and Arafat appointing the speaker of the Palestine national assembly, Quriah (Abu Ala), as prime minister. Quriah was not acceptable to the US and the UK, which had reservations about him which in turn led to Quriah taking the position that he will assume charge only when his acceptability is formally acknowledged by all powers concerned.
Militants’ violence, compounded by serious political instability and a threat to Arafat’s position, even his life, characterizes the situation in west Asia. Sharon has not shown any inclination to adopt the middle path of a compromise. The reality is that he seems to have basic support from the US for his policy orientations, whatever obfuscatory white-washing may be indulged in by the US and the UK in rationalizing their approach. Arafat and the cause of the Palestinians are sought to be detached from the historical context of their struggle and to be converted into a part of the West’s anti-terrorist campaign.
The ruling coalition of India has been critical of the Congress Party objecting to Sharon’s visit, claiming that the Congress’s stand on the visit is a contradiction because it was a Congress government which formalized relations with Israel. This argument is inaccurate because the rationale which led to P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government formalizing relations with Israel was logical. By mid-1991, the government of India had reliable information from its diplomatic missions in the US and Scandinavian countries that confidential contacts between the government of Israel and the PLO were in progress in Spain, Sweden and Norway. India had also received reliable confirmation that contacts between the PLO and the government of Israel, led by the late Yitzhak Rabin had the support of all the major powers of the world, particularly the US and the Soviet Union.
More significantly, India had received reports that the Israel-PLO contacts have the endorsement of important Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. This change in Arab diplomatic and political attitude was manifested in many of these countries proceeding to establish contacts with the emerging Russian federation.
The other factors which led to the Indian decision were Israel’s support to India on issues related to India’s territorial integrity, particularly on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. This was despite India not having any formal relations with Israel till 1992. India had clear indications that the Oslo process would lead to a reconciliation between the PLO and Israel, and that the PLO will acquire a territorial identity and a recognized governmental status. Working groups were to be established following the Oslo agreement, to move towards this objective. The PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, when consulted by the prime minister, Narasimha Rao, endorsed the government of India’s intention to establish relations with Israel, emphasizing that by this act, India would find a place in these multinational working groups and will be able to safeguard Palestinian interests.
Equally, if not more important, were considerations of mutually beneficial interests which led to the government of India’s decision to formalize relations with Israel. There was a convergence of interests in countering religious extremism and militant violence. There were concrete possibilities of the establishment of substantive economic relations, including trade and investment. There were clear potentials for scientific and technological cooperation between India and Israel. Israel’s agricultural experience in dry farming, desert irrigation and agro-industries could prove to be beneficial to India. Israeli experience in countering militant violence was of relevance to India in dealing with similar phenomenon in the country. But the overriding consideration, of course, was the fact that the era of confrontation between Israel and the PLO was expected to end.
The rationale of India’s relations with Israel has been vindicated as far as the bilateral relations between the two countries go. It is the dimension of Israel-PLO relations which have gone beyond expectations. The peace process between Israel and the PLO received its major setback with the assassination of the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, followed by the weakening of the moderate coalition led by him and Shimon Peres. The process continued in fits and starts till the tenure of Ehud Barak of Israel. With his departure, Israel-PLO relations have gone downhill to a point where Sharon is not interested in a rational compromise with the Palestinians.
What is unfortunate is that the US is not interested in pressurizing Sharon to be reasonable beyond cosmetic postures. The question is whether this stalemate will result in India’s tangible interests being held hostage to this situation. Indo-Israeli trade is of the order of $1-1.5 billion, excluding the cost of the defence cooperation between the two countries.
Cooperation in the fields of defence supplies and training, science and technology and countering terrorism has steadily increased. Israel provided critical assistance to India during the Kargil war and the hijacking of an Indian plane from Kathmandu to Kandahar. The latest example is the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh having approved consultations with Israeli security entities to beef up security arrangements in Andhra Pradesh after a bomb attack on him on the first of October.
Given the substance of the mutuality of interests between India and Israel, the visit of the Israeli prime minister to India was perhaps a logical exercise in realpolitik. The only problem was that the prime minister happens to be Ariel Sharon. Having acknowledged this reality, one feels that declarations about strategic partnerships with Israel, Indian policies having been previously affected by electoral considerations inside India made by the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, and the former minister for external affairs, Jaswant Singh, were ill-advised. It would have been sufficient to emphasize that Indo-Israeli relations were based on the solid foundation of mutual interests and mutual benefit.
The basic critical questions being posed about Sharon’s visit is whether the visit has qualitatively harmed India’s relations with Arab and Islamic countries. There are two answers: first, Indian interests cannot be held hostage to the general political orientations of the Arab and Islamic countries. The second answer is that the visit is not likely to have any negative impact on India’s relations with Muslim countries because of the same logic of mutual substantive interests. The point to be remembered is that India’s stance supportive of the aspirations of the Palestinian people has not changed.
India invited the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority just before Sharon’s visit who acknowledged the usefulness of India’s relations with Israel on the wider issues of peace in west Asia. The concerns which he conveyed to us were mentioned to Sharon at the highest levels by the prime minister and the president of India.
It is worth noting that Arab countries like Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Qatar have governmental contacts with Israel. It should also be noted that other Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, have not done anything tangible supporting the PLO in the current critical situation. In fact, India has been more articulate about the cause of Palestinians, to the Israelis than these countries.
The important fact to be remembered is that the importance of Indo-Israeli relations transcends the prime-ministership of Sharon. It is a different matter that the government of India dealt with Sharon because of its perceptions of current needs. These perceptions were not entirely valid.