Free Press Journal

Big political gestures achieving little



When the Bangladeshi leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned from visiting Japan in 1972 claiming to have obtained handsome aid commitments, India’s high commissioner in Dhaka wondered in his diary whether any Asian head of government ever went abroad “without creating a tremendous impact and achieving great success.” That seems especially true of today’s India with the media hailing every one of Narendra Modi’s frequent foreign forays as a spectacular triumph. Reports of his three-hour stopover in the Israeli-occupied West Bank last week are especially significant in this respect if seen in the right context of Mr Modi’s visit to Israel last July and Benjamin Netanyahu’s to India in January.

Any analysis of media coverage of the brief halt in what is called Palestine exposes the laudatory mood of India’s media, the prevailing political climate in New Delhi, and the NDA government’s West Asian policy which is as much Mr Modi’s personal diplomacy as non-alignment was Jawaharlal Nehru’s. It also exposes the absence of objective analysis as India’s attitude towards Israel swings from disdainful rejection to what Mr Netanyahu calls a “match made in heaven”. Israel’s achievements command respect, and New Delhi should long ago have realised we can benefit from them. At the same time, Israel’s regional policy is that of a bully, and that no Indian can ever condone.

But, first, we must understand that the high commissioner who made that cryptic comment was a special person. Subimal Dutt came from a poor but eminently respectable and highly educated Bengali family from Chittagong (then in undivided India, now in Bangladesh), and had been trained in Britain as a member of the Indian Civil Service. He was India’s longest serving foreign secretary (1955-1961) as well as first ambassador to West Germany. Later, he was ambassador to the Soviet Union. Indira Gandhi dragged him out of retirement when he was around seventy, a widower whose only son had died young, to set India-Bangladesh relations on an even keel. In Dhaka he was affectionately called “Dadu” or grandfather. Even he reserved his sarcasm for the privacy of pages that would have remained unknown but for the deep research of a political biography published 25 years after his death.

Given his perspicacity, Dutt could not have failed to see the linkage between the three days Mr Modi spent in Israel in 2017 as the first Indian prime minister to visit the Jewish state and Mr Netanyahu’s six-day path-breaking visit to India last month and the Ramallah halt.  Much has been made of the fact that other Indian dignitaries who visited the West Bank, including Pranab Mukherjee who visited Israel and Palestine as president in 2015, did so from Israel, whereas Mr Modi travelled from Jordan. I would hazard the guess the Israelis arranged even that. The Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, a creation of British imperialism ruled by a dynasty that was expelled from Mecca and to which the British felt indebted during World War I, probably trusts Israel more than it does any Arab regime.

Trained at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and Pembroke College, Oxford, Jordan’s half-English King Abdullah II, who began his career as a second lieutenant in the British Army, can have little in common with his fellow Arab rulers. Or with Mr Modi, for that matter. Having surrendered to the latter’s obligatory embrace, he provided Mr Modi with a military helicopter for the trip to Ramallah.

But it was Mr Netanyahu who sent two Israeli air force helicopters as escort. The little fleet must have proclaimed to all West Asians that Israel calls the shots in the region. It controls all the entrance and exit points for the roughly 6,000-sq-km West Bank as well as its 150-km border with Jordan and air space. The visit to Palestine was very much courtesy Israel. Although Palestine is recognised by 136 United Nations members, enjoys the UN status of a non-member observer state, and is a member of the Arab League, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, G77, and the International Olympic Committee, in practice it is entirely at Israel’s mercy. In short, Mr Modi dropped in on an Israeli colony, with Israel ordering all the arrangements.

Time was when India fervently supported the Palestinian cause and Mahatma Gandhi denounced Jewish settlements in Palestine as “inhumane”. But after some false starts, Nehru asked David Ben-Gurion for Tampella mortars during the 1962 Himalayan war. There were many semi-secret contacts after that until the threat of US sanctions for the Pokhran-II nuclear tests and Pakistani aggression at Kargil led to more open overtures. Since then, India has become Israel’s largest defence customer, buying 41 per cent of total Israeli arms exports between 2012 and 2016, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Palestinians can justifiably complain that this massive arms trade, complemented by growing cultural and economic exchanges between the two countries, enables Israel to maintain its stranglehold on the conquered territories of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Israel is the only country in the world to in effect extend its territory through repeated military conquests.

If there is a solution, it lies in the 1993 Oslo Accords that kicked off the American-mediated peace process whose goal is a “final status agreement” to establish a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank in exchange for Palestinians agreeing permanently to end attacks on Israeli targets. This “land for peace” formula must solve the problem of Palestinian refugees, guarantee Israel’s security, establish respected borders, forbid illegal Jewish settlements in Palestinian land, reach a consensus on Jerusalem, and underwrite the independence of Gaza and the West Bank. The obstacles seem to be continued expansion of West Bank settlements, which Palestinians see as a strategy to erase their state even before it’s born; bitter rivalry between the two Palestinian organisations, Fatah and Hamas; and the suspension of the peace talks since 2001 with neither side anxious to get them going again.

This is where India might be able to play a role. When P V Narasimha Rao decided to exchange ambassadors with Israel, one justification he gave was that he had discussed it with Yasser Arafat who agreed that diplomatic relations between India and Israel would facilitate the peace process. Now that bilateral relations are reaching “unprecedented heights” to quote Mr Netanyahu who also says the possibilities are “boundless”, let the two prime ministers demonstrate their good faith to West Asia and the world. It’s a challenge for Mr Modi to prove that his profound obeisance at Arafat’s mausoleum last week wasn’t only for the TV cameras. If something comes of it that would belie Dutt’s cynical belief that no Asian head of government ever goes abroad without claiming to create “tremendous impact and achieving great success” but actually achieving little.

The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.