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04 Aug 2009
India and the Middle East -- Need for a more Pro-Active Role

by Prakash Shah

Ambassador Prakash Shah is former Permanent Representative of India to the U.N. and former Special Envoy of U.N. Secretary General for Iraq.

President Obama’s now famous Cairo speech has several positives for Islamic Countries, but none so timely as his impassioned plea for the need to solve the mother of all thorny issues, the Palestine question.  For years now, there has been a near-unanimous agreement, though not clearly articulated, that the so called inevitable clash of civilisations does not have to take place if the international community can somehow solve the Israel – Palestine issues on the basis of fulfilling the legitimate aspirations of both sides.  For far too many people in the Islamic world, the unsolved Palestine question is the fountainhead of the rampant and the growing acts of terrorism which threaten the peace and the security of our world, as they take the lives and the liberty of thousands of innocent civilians across international borders.

Over the last several decades, the international community implicitly believed that only the USA has the power, influence and the capacity to solve the Palenstine issue.  During the pre-oil price rise era, there was a lot of truth in this belief.  With the oil prices rising dramatically in the 1970s and reaching the improbable heights of $145 per barrel in 2008, a number of new, powerful state and non-state actors have emerged in the Middle East to make the Palestine independence issue more complicated than it already was.

For the major part of the 20th century after independence, India has been a solid and consistent supporter of the Palestine cause.  Successive Indian Prime Ministers provided strong vocal and financial support to the deceased Palestine leader Mr. Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organisation.  It is precisely because of this unequivocal support that India was considered a votary of PLO and was not invited to participate in any international attempt to mediate or impartially solve the Israel – Palestine issue.

A breakthrough of sorts was achieved when India opened formal Diplomatic relations with Israel under the auspicious of Prime Minister, Mr. Narsimha Rao’s Congress Govt., almost 45 years after India recognised Israel and later allowed it to open Consular representation in Mumbai.

India successfully pursued  development of trade, economic and technical cooperation with Israel without diluting Indian support for the Palestine cause.  Faced with increasing security  and defence threats from Pakistan, which was strengthened by clandestine acquisition of nuclear weapon technology from China and North Korea, as well as USA and European nuclear industry, India moved to establish closer relations with Israel for the defence supplies. Israel progressively became a significant supplier of high-tech defence equipment to India’s Armed Forces, particularly during the period when the Bharatiya Janata Party led the coalition Government of India.

With the emergence of the Congress led coalition Government Mr. Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh in 2004 India was ideally placed, as a supporter of Palestine state and a friend of Israel, to become a significant regional player in the international efforts to solve the Palestine question.  The Manmohan Singh Government sent the right signals when it appointed a knowledgeable and gentlemanly former Indian Foreign Service Officer as his Special Envoy for Middle East and West Asia.  The primary intention was to assuage the sentiments of some of India’s Arab friends, who were getting uncomfortable with India’s proximity to Israel and India’s growing military supplies relationship with that country.

Unfortunately, the initial promise on the Middle East front shown by the Government of India by creating the first ever post of Special Envoy for Middle East remained unfulfilled as India’s diplomacy stuttered and subsequently floundered into non-significance in the highly visible global effort to solve the Palestine issue.  The Prime Minister’s Special Envoy was hardly seen and never mentioned in UN and global efforts to bring peace in the Middle East.  Even the highly voluble and visible Indian Media was conscipicously silent on any Indian contribution to the Middle East peace efforts.  It became increasingly clear, as the Singh Government notched up success in its relations with the USA of George Bush that India had arrived at a quiet understanding that India would continue to develop closer military and security relations with Israel while its vocal and diplomatic support for the Palestine cause will continue as a typically Indian balancing act in reminiscent of the old policy of non-alignment.

As the new more confident Congress led Government of Prime Minister, Mr. Singh, takes charge for the next 5 years, India will have to deal with this challenge more imaginatively under a fresh Foreign Minister.  If India wants to credibly maintain its claim for a permanent membership on the UN Security Council, if India wants to attract FDI from GCC Countries to maintain its position as the No.1 emerging Democratic Country, if India needs to ensure security of oil supplies from the Gulf oil producing countries and if India values  the massive inflows of inward remittances from the millions of Indians employed in the Middle East, then it is time the Government of India woke up from the slumber of non-participation on the  Middle East front.  The highly volatile situation in the Middle East, the potential nuclearsation of Iran and the imminent Talibisation of Afghanistan, and perhaps Pakistan, pose great dangers to the security of India as the major country in the extended West Asian region, as well as to the security of energy supplies from the Gulf region.  As a country in close relations with USA, Israel, Russia, Iran and the Arab world, India is in a unique position to build a positive diplomatic role not only on the Palestine issue but also in promoting US and Iran dialogue on the issue of threats of weaponisation of Iran’s nuclear program.  A diplomatic approach for resolving the crisis over Iran nuclear development should be more broad based than what it is today.  Just as North Korea nuclear issue is driven by its neighbours China, Japan and South Korea, the possible solution to the Iran nuclear issue should involve its neighbours in the Gulf, West Asia and South Asia rather than left entirely to the United State and EU.  An Iranian nuclear bomb will pose a much larger threat to its neighbours from India to Saudi Arabia and West Asia than to US, EU or Japan.  A policy designed only by US and Europe to resolve the Iranian problem carries with it the danger of a military conflict in the Middle East, whose dimensions and destructive potential would be far more disastrous to the region than the American invasion of Iraq.

The new President of United States, Mr. Barack Obama faces a number of domestic and international policy challenges, of which the approach to the Iran issue is a major one.  It would be wiser on the part of President Obama to involve Iran’s neighbours in the search for solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to do de-construct the Bush policy of approaching it as an American issue.  It is in this context that India needs to emerge as an important player.

India’s Government must not repeat its folly of benevolent neglect of these issues, as they threaten the peace and security of the expanded West Asian region of which India is a part, and must begin to grab opportunity of its proximity to the contending forces in the region to proactively contribute to global and regional efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Ambassador Prakash Shah can be contacted at prakashun@yahoo.com




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