INDIA AS PEACEMAKER IN WEST ASIA?

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the latter, in a first by an Arab nation perennially in conflict with Israel, granted Air India, the national carrier, approval to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv over and through Saudi territory. Can India use this soft power and more to bring down the growing tensions among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran? A tall order, but is doable, insists diplomat-scholar Talmiz Ahmad who served in West Asian region for over ten years as India’s envoy to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Ambassador Ahmad thinks that of all the global diplomacy India is currently engaged in, the one in West Asia is truly unprecedented. It gives India a unique position to play peacemaker.   Taking forward his premise, one should consider the biggest likely hurdle: how will an unstable and unpredictable Donald Trump administration take an Indian initiative? India and the US have been consolidating their ties exponentially. Will that help? And how will a Brexit-hit Britain, well past its imperial grandeur, take it? Britain historically and the US since the last century have been the principal players behind much that has been happening, particularly the conflicts, in West Asia. The Saudi-Iran-Israel tensions keep the region on the boil and their impact goes well beyond. Everyone is walking the tight rope. And that is an understatement for India the way it has been interacting with diverse nations in the region, many of which are at daggers drawn with one another. Yet they all come to India and host Indian leaders. These visits have yielded numerous agreements and memoranda of understanding, setting the agenda for the future collaboration in multiple areas of mutual interest. It is another matter, however, that India has acquired a reputation for not fulfilling many proiects – some not taking off some others delayed. This is not unique to West Asia, though.  Fortunately, even if the projects are missed and hived off to others, India’s goodwill continues. And nowhere else this goodwill is more visible than in the presence of eight million Indians working in countries across West Asia, out-populating nine of them. It has not been easy, though.  The turmoil of the past few years in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen has unleashed untold sufferings on Indians working there.   The USD 70 billion earnings by Indians being repatriated home last year, a global highest, have fallen due to an unprecedented fall in crude oil prices and simmering geopolitical tension in the Persian Gulf.  They may nevertheless remain as formidable as the oil and gas that flows from the region to meet 65 percent of India’s growing needs.   Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in the last nearly four years visited and/or hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Palestine, Oman and Iran. Among numerous minister-level consultations, foreign minister of Syria, besieged by five combating forces, visited in January. The UAE Crown Prince was the Chief Guest at the Republic Day last year. Within a six months’ span, Modi both visited and played host to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet, India did not toe the US/Israeli line on Jerusalem at the United Nations and Modi travelled from Tel Aviv to Palestine. Significantly, India, while getting cozy with Trump – also daughter Ivanka and son, Donald Trump Jr. — also deals with Iran, Trump’s bête noire in the region.  President Hasan Rouhani’s visit is yet another signal, not just to the US, but to all players in the Gulf region, of India’s long term intent.   The Rouhani visit yielded significant results that need sustained follow-up. Not just that, it has gingerly pushed the Chabahar project, being jointly worked with Iran. India has secured control of the first phase of the port that it has built to gain connectivity to Iran and through it, Afghanistan, bypassing a hostile Pakistan and with future prospects of reaching Central Asia. Far from being ceremonial in nature, these interactions have consolidated defence ties and investments in India’s energy, infrastructure and other key sectors. The stage for this Look-West Asia was set by government of P V Narasimha Rao (who also initiated Look-East Policy) in the 1990s. It was assiduously followed up by premiers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. But those were different times and circumstances. The Modi Government has shown a better understanding by undoing a historical error on Gwadar which once belonged to Oman and was offered to India during the Nehru era. Understandably, it was then thought that Gwadar could not be defended in an attack from Pakistan. Another act of the “late-Latif” has been to gain access to Oman’s Duqm port, long after many others gained a foothold there.  It is nevertheless useful if India has to secure its presence along the Gulf and Africa’s eastern sea coast.   The importance of these ports cannot be underestimated, not the least in competition to China that is rapidly expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean region, directly and through Pakistan. Chabahar is a smaller project compared to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), but has greater potential  of access to Central Asia and the Caspian Sea. It is more doable, if only the US does not put a spoke, because both India and Iran are on the same page.    A little comparison of India’s ‘Look/Act’ policies would be appropriate. Tackling South Asia, its immediate neighbourhood, easily the most difficult part of its diplomatic task, has kept faltering as it meets new challenges practically each day. The Maldives developments are a pointer, so is a less friendly government taking shape in Nepal, and both have China as the common adversarial factor.     The China factor is stronger in India’s “Act East” Policy. But there India is tying up with the US, Australia and Japan to enhance its clout.  By contrast, the ‘Act West’ policy leaves India to devise its own strategy that in some instances is at odds with the Anglo- American interests.   Given the turbulence in West Asia, many would advise India to have a hands-off approach, and focus only on its bilateral interests in the region. However, India cannot afford to ignore this perilous challenge. It needs to play a role in resolving the regional conflicts. Unlike Pakistan that is happy to dispatch troops to seek leadership of the Muslim ‘ummah’, for India, sending troops would be unwise. India’s military presence is neither sought as of now, nor desirable. Given the goodwill it enjoys, and with a reputation of neutrality, the Indian presence should remain non-combatant, in areas where its economic assistance and knowledge are made available directly to the people. This neutral role helps India as a prospective interlocutor in West Asia. Its relations go back to ancient times, long before that region got divided into modern-day nations. In contemporary terms, India’s ties with each of those nations have been bilateral and transactional. Indians have not participated in any of their conflicts. Nor have Indian Muslims been part of any terrorist group like Al Qaida or the ISIS.   Indians have played peacekeepers on behalf of the United Nations. It is time India uses its unique position to play the peacemaker.             ]]>

Modi breaks protocol to receive Netanyahu

Teen Murti roundabout named after Israeli city Haifa

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar underlined that Modi had departed from protocol to receive Netanyahu. “The visit is a fitting culmination to the silver jubilee year of the formal relationship (between India and Israel).” This is the first visit to India by an Israeli Prime Minister since Ariel Sharon came in 2003. Modi tweeted: “Welcome to India, my friend… Your visit to India is historic and special. It will further cement the close relationship between our nations.” The Prime Minister’s Office said: “A special welcome for a special visit… Modi personally receives Israeli PM at Delhi Airport.” Netanyahu and Modi are expected to discuss a variety of subjects related to bilateral relations and the global situation. The Israeli leader, accompanied by dozens of Israeli businessmen, will visit the Centre of Excellence in Agriculture at Vadrad in Gujarat and interact with business leaders in Mumbai. He will also go to the Taj Mahal city of Agra. (IANS) // ]]>

Tillerson softens blow of Jerusalem decision

Security Council warns of tensions on Trump’s Jerusalem move

Members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) have criticised Washington’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and warned that it would raise tensions in the area even as Washington stood alone steadfastly defending its decision. The political conflict over Jerusalem could turn into an unrelenting religious conflict, France’s Permanent Representative Francois Delattre told an emergency meeting on Friday. Citing several Council resolutions, he said that any unilateral changes to the city’s status would be null and void. The international community would only recognise modifications of the 1967 borders accepted by both sides, he said in a statement that reflected the broad convergence of views of both US allies and others in the Council. One of the Council resolutions adopted in 1980 specifically asks member countries not to put their diplomatic missions in the “Holy City” considered sacred by Jews, Christians and Muslims. In contrast to the UN, where even Washington’s allies crticised President Donald Trump’s decision announced on Wednesday, there was a broad consensus in the US reflected in a law passed by Congress in 1995 move the embassy to Jerusalem. About 1,000 Palestine supporters protested in New York’s Times Square on Friday evening. Separated by police barriers across the avenue, a smaller group held a counter demonstration supporting Trump. US Permanent Representative Nikki Haley reiterated the Trump administration’s commitment to a peace process and to a two-state solution. “The US has not taken a position on boundaries or borders… The specific dimensions of sovereignty over Jerusalem are still to be decided by the Israelis and the Palestinians in negotiations.” Haley said that it was “simple common sense” to move Washington’s embassy to Jerusalem because “in virtually every country in the world, US embassies are located in the host country’s capital city”. British Permanent Representative Matthew Ryrcroft said that Jerusalem should be the joint capital of Israeli and Palestinian states and the US decision was unhelpful. He said that the expansion of Israeli settlements, particularly in East Jerusalem, terrorism and incitement to violence were barriers to a lasting solution to the conflict there. China’s Deputy Permanent Representative Wu Haitao said that any unilateral actions on Jerusalem’s status could trigger new confrontations. Earlier while briefing the Council, UN’s Middle East Peace Process Special Coordinator Nickolay Mladenov noted that Trump had said final status issues, including the boundaries, remains to be determined. “It is up to all of us in the international community, as much as it is up to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, to urgently advance a just and lasting resolution to this conflict,” he said, warning of the risks of “being engulfed in the vortex of religious radicalism”. (IANS) // ]]>

Trump move on Jerusalem faces worldwide criticism

 US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital triggered global flak, including from some of America’s closest allies, amid fears it could strengthen extremists and destroy the region’s faltering peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Trump’s decision on Wednesday had made for a “historic day” and was “an important step towards peace”. But furious Palestinians condemned it and warned that had diminished Washington’s role as a peace mediator. Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas called the decision “deplorable” and said it will not change Jerusalem’s status as the “eternal capital of the State of Palestine”. Palestinians took to the streets in Gaza and the West Bank. The hardline Hamas called for a “day of rage” on Friday and said the decision would “open the doors of hell” on US interests in the region. In a landmark speech in Washington, Trump reversed decades of US policy in defiance of warnings that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital will derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and create further unrest in the Middle East. Trump, fulfilling his campaign promise, said he had “judged this course of action to be in the best interests of the US and the pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians”. He said he would tell the State Department to begin preparations to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump said the US still supported a two-state solution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if approved by both sides. Several past US Presidents insisted that the status of Jerusalem — home to sites holy to the Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions — must be decided in negotiations between the two sides. The UN Security Council will discuss the issue on Friday after eight of the 15 nations called for an emergency session. The Arab League will meet on Saturday. The Arab and the wider Muslim world, including a number of US allies, condemned Trump’s announcement. The Saudi Royal Court warned of serious consequences of such an “irresponsible and unwarranted step”. The United Arab Emirates expressed “deep concern” about the repercussions of the decision, WAM news agency reported. Lebanon’s pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar newspaper declared “Death to America” on its front page on Thursday. President Hassan Rouhani said Iran “will not tolerate a violation of Islamic sanctities. Muslims must stand united against this major plot”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the US decision was not only a violation of international law but also a severe blow to the conscience of humanity. Demonstrations erupted outside the US consulate in Istanbul. Kuwait and Qatar, besides China and Pakistan, also came out against the US move. India declined to comment, saying its position on Palestine “is independent and consistent”. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said it was “a moment of great anxiety”. He said “there is no alternative to the two-state solution”. Pope Francis called for the city’s “status quo” to be respected, saying new tensions in the Middle East would further inflame world conflicts. British leader Theresa May disagreed with the US decision, which was “unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron both said their countries did not support the move. Canada said its embassy won’t move to Jerusalem. EU chief diplomat Federica Mogherini voiced “serious concern”. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called on Muslims worldwide to “make it clear that we strongly oppose” the US move. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo too slammed the US decision. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, and according to the 1993 Israel-Palestinian peace accords, its final status is meant to be discussed in the latter stages of peace talks.
  (Reproduced tweets do not reflect Lokmarg editorial policy)
(IANS) // ]]>