Playing the balancing act

Modi in Middle-East

By Dr D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)

Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to the countries of Middle-East was to meet, at least, four interrelated objectives — political, diplomatic, strategic and economic. He visited three countries in three days — Palestine, UAE and Oman, in fact four including Jordan where he spent the night prior to a three-hour dash to Palestine.
Pakistan had dubbed India-Israel growing proximity as anti-Islam, and sought to fan anti-India feeling in the Middle East. New Delhi needed to counter this calculated narrative. The visit played the political balancing act hastening the receding influence of Pakistan in the Arab world. It also helped enhance India’s profile in a positive global leadership role, and more specifically in contributing to the lasting peace in the Middle East.
Palestine President Mahmood Abbas expressed this expectation in his welcome address, “we rely on India’s role as an international voice of great standing and its increasingly growing power on the strategic and economic levels in a way that is conducive to just and desired peace in our region”. Abbas termed Modi’s visit as historic, the first by an Indian Prime Minister. Furthermore, they conferred their highest award on him, the “Grand collar of the State of Palestine”.
But, was the visit symbolic, a political balancing act, ending up in signing six MOUs, $50 million aid — a super speciality hospital ($30 million) and women empowerment ($5 million), and scholarships of a few thousands dollars? Or India could be an honest, impartial mediator in brokering a lasting peace between a secure Israel and independent Palestine? That is indeed the challenge for India’s diplomacy. Is South Block, led by Modi up to it?
A brief recall of India-Palestine-Israel relations will help set the current context to assess India’s Potential in performing the historic role. India voted against the partition of Palestine and creation of Israel, by the UNGA Resolution (81(11), 29 November, 1947. In 1949, India voted against Israel in its admission to UN. In 1950, it recognised Israel, and in 1992, New Delhi established full diplomatic relations. In 2015-16, both Presidents of Israel and India visited each other, and in 2017-18, so did both the Prime Ministers.
India is adept at playing a balancing act, it goes with India’s culture grain of synthesising contradictions, carving out a middle path in place of binary opposites. Both Israel and Arab/Palestine have backed quite a way out of their original irreconcilable positions. Israeli perspective articulated, among others, by former Prime Minister and President Simon Peres, held that the old mandate of Palestine chiselled out of Ottoman Empire at the end of the first world war could have only two states — Israel and Jordan. There is no scope for a third one. The Arab States had vowed to destroy Israel, and Palestinians wanted to drive Israelis into the sea.
Ostensibly, both Israel and Palestine had recoiled from their recalcitrant positions and have agreed to recognise each other as two independent sovereign States — reconciling Israeli security with Palestinian self-determination. Palestinian authority (PLO) once led by Yasser Arafat had discarded terror methods, and Israelis agreed to restrain from forceful occupation of Palestinian territories, both inclined to come to the negotiating table.
Modi could take a leaf out of Bruno Kreisky’s life, the former Austrian Chancellor, a Jew himself who had brought the two parties to the negotiating table in 1970s and 1980s, on the basis of the following framework; (1) Israel be prepared to return to 1967 borders, prior to six-day Arab-Israel war on 4 June 1967; (2) Establishment of Palestinian State comprising West Bank and Gaza Strip;(3) An agreement on Israeli settlements; (4) Return of Palestinian refugees, and (5) Return of territories taken from Egypt and Syria. The terms of negotiation can change on mutual agreement, but these constitute a blue print for resolution of the conflict.
Arguably, India is in a pre-eminent position to broker a peace agreement between the two warring States. It is true that Israeli has greater fire power, bigger army, more sophisticated war machines, but relentless aggression does not lead to permanent and maintainable peace; violence breeds more violence. If Modi’s tradition-breaking visit were to be truly historic, he needs to initiate a durable peace process.
Modi’s next stop was Oman where he held talks and signed eight agreements and pledged cooperation in the fields of defence, health and tourism. He held delegation level discussions with Sultan of Oman, Sayyid Qaboos bin Said AL Said. Indian companies pledged $1.8 billion to the SEZs in Duqm, Sohar and Salalah. Both New Delhi and Muscat agreed to build strategic oil reserves. More significantly, India was given access to the key port of Duqm for logistical support and military use. NaMo said his visit to Oman was ‘wonderful’.
The last stop in Modi’s West Asia outreach was UAE, where he had to address the inaugural session of the Sixth World Government Summit. His theme was ‘Technology and Development’, wherein he urged the world audience that technology should be used for human-development, not for their destruction. He and his team held wide-ranging discussion with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, which included common concerns like combating and countering terrorism, security, space and defence cooperation, diversifying non-oil trade.
They talked about the functioning of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement signed when Nahyan visited India to be Guest of Honour on Republic Day parade in 2017. India and UAE signed agreements on co-operation in various fields. The UAE-India High Level Task Force met as UAE committed to investing $75 million on infrastructure development in India. Both countries also agreed to explore joint projects on development etc. in third countries.
Having noted that, the India-UAE trade has grown up to $53 billion in 2016-17, both countries affirmed to enhance the volume by focusing on non-oil trade, as they built strategic oil reserves. The non-oil fields included civil aviation, climate change and energy. It was agreed to promote the exchange of scholars, academic and cultural delegations. India was invited to their Expo-exhibition in March this year, and UAE was to the international book fair in New Delhi in 2019. Modi underlined the fact that, for a vast number of Indians, UAE was their second home. He thanked and hailed the cosmopolitanism of the UAE government for providing space for Indians to follow their faith etc. This was his second visit to UAE as Prime Minister.
Interestingly, Modi’s first stop-over was in Amman, Jordan where he met King Abdulla II and spent the night there, on his way to Palestine. This was the first visit by an Indian PM after three decades since late Rajiv Gandhi was there. Both Modi and King Abdulla expressed their mutual satisfaction over the meeting; “the meeting would further boost India Jordanian ties”, tweeted NaMo. The king, who is visiting India, by the end of this month, described the meeting as the “beginning of a new chapter in bilateral ties.
Finally, New Delhi under Modi, treats its relation with Israel and Arab world (Palestine) as mutually independent and exclusive. It has effectively delinked the two, but it has now to bring them back together in terms of a settlement of their long-standing dispute, and go down in history as path-breaker, or alternatively, as a partisan leader feeding on the so-called national interest rather than fostering peace and harmony. —INFA