Creating an Indian Lake


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The small, out-of-mind archipelago of Seychelles has been in the Indian news cycle an inordinate amount. Part of this is due to a prospering Indian public starting to take greater interest in the geopolitics of their region. Another reason is the recent agreement signed between India and Seychelles for the construction of a military base on Assumption Island, one of the 115 islands of the African country. Originally signed in 2015 during a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the country, work could not begin on the strategic asset as the deal was not ratified by the Seychelles parliament during the term of the previous president, James Michel.

Controversy was stirred recently when the present president of the South Indian Ocean country, Danny Faure, declared in 2017 that the agreement would have to be renegotiated as it did not serve the interests of the Seychellois. Then, a recent leak of the text of the newly-negotiated agreement also stoked the controversy in that it was alleged that Victoria has sold off Assumption Island to India; Faure’s administration rushed to clarify that this was not the case and stressed that India would not be developing infrastructure on Assumption for military purposes. Ostensibly, the facilities are meant to support patrolling against illegal fishing, piracy, and drug and human trafficking.

Under the agreement, India will renovate the airstrip on Assumption Island, renovate the jetty, and build living quarters for the Seychelles Coast Guard. The entire project is expected to take a quarter of the tiny island that measures barely 6.7 kms in length and 2.9 kms in width and cost approximately $550 million.

Several things were clarified and modified between the 2015 agreement and the 2018 revision. The deal was extended to 20 years from 10 years with an option to further extend the arrangement by another 10 years; it was clarified that the island was still under the sovereignty of Seychelles, meaning that Indians stationed on Assumption Island will face Seychellois justice if accused of a crime; the obligations of each party were explicitly spelled out as were technical details pertaining to the jetty and airstrip; conditions for the storage of arms have been made more stringent (military exercises, guarding the facilities, and self-defence in case of internal disturbances). As in the 2015 agreement, India has agreed not to use the base in times of war or allow vessels with nuclear weapons to use the facilities. Third parties may be allowed use of the facilities upon joint agreement by both governments.

Although Seychelles has been at pains to emphasise that the agreement with India is not military in nature, the terms indicate otherwise or at least hold open the strong potential for use for security purposes. Victoria, however, does not wish to invite Great Power rivalry – not just between India and China but potentially the United States and France as well – into its living room and has made a public relations decision to highlight the benefits it receives from the development of infrastructure on Assumption Island in the enforcement of domestic law and order.

The deal is seen as important for India because it enhances its surveillance capabilities over the Indian Ocean. In concert with a coastal surveillance radar station already operating in Seychelles, a naval base at Agalega in Mauritius, a coastal radar station in Madagascar, an array of radars in Maldives, and a strong presence in the littoral waters of Mozambique, Delhi’s acquisition of facilities on one of the 67 raised coral islands of the Aldabra group will create an impermeable surveillance net in the southwestern and central Indian Ocean. Assumption Island’s position dominating the Mozambique channel, a key sea lane for merchant ships, adds to India’s kitty a second potential choke point after the Strait of Malacca; the latter is dominated by India’s augmented presence in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands chain as well as with naval agreements with Vietnam and Singapore.

India’s strategic assets in its ocean, important as they are on their own, have an added multiplier effect: Delhi has recently signed a Logistics Support Agreement with the United States and France, allowing the navies of those countries to share naval facilities with the Indian Navy. This extends India’s reach even further from the French base at Reunion – perhaps even Paris’ services in Djibouti – and the US base at Diego Garcia. Together, it is possible for the three countries to establish a Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) line array to closely monitor the movement of all ships and submarines through the region. It is rumoured that India is seeking Japanese assistance in setting up a similar surveillance line from Indira Point to Sumatra, which will then connect with a similar existing US-Japanese network in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean Rim. Between these two arrays, Delhi’s knowledge of movement in the Indian Ocean will see a marked increase and make its naval deployments more efficient.

An agreement with Australia for access to its Indian Ocean Territories, Cocos Islands and Christmas, is tempting but the geography and size of the islands is not an insignificant obstacle to overcome.

There has been some opposition to India’s presence in the archipelago that range from geopolitical to economic and environmental. However, with approximately 10% of the population tracing its roots back to India, there is, so far, general good will towards India. Unlike its larger northeastern neighbour China, India has avoided giving hard loans or flooding client states with Indian labour and instead preferred joint development. India’s previous assistance to the archipelago also puts it in good standing with the Seychellois. In June and September 1986, India helped suppress two coups in the country, the first by deploying the INS Vindhyagiri (which, to be fair, was already on its way to the island on a routine visit) and the second by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi loaning Air India One to Seychelles president France-Albert René. India has also helped Seychelles patrol its Exclusive Economic Zone and provided equipment such as Dornier Do 228s and Chetak helicopters to meet the security needs of the island chain. The Indian Navy has frequently assisted Seychelles in anti-piracy operations in the past decade. and Delhi has also helped train the Seychellois own armed forces.

At present, India is economically and militarily incapable of facing Chinese encroachment into the Indian Ocean. Beijing has been candid about its String of Pearls for over a decade and yet little was done to augment India’s ability to respond to the threat, either diplomatically or otherwise. Despite its jarring paeans to non-alignment, strategic autonomy, and other such dated misadventures, Delhi has recently made a sound move by agreeing to work in tandem with similarly-minded powers to protect the Indian Ocean. The acquisition of its own assets in the Indian Ocean Region is a bonus and will retain some autonomy for India.


Does India Have An Israel Policy?


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There will be nothing but bonhomie for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is expected to arrive in India in a couple of days for a three-day state visit. The Israeli delegation will begin their visit from Ahmedabad, visit Sabarmati Ashram and hold a roadshow in Gujarat, and perhaps visit Agra and Bombay. While in India’s financial capital, Netanyahu is scheduled to visit the Chabad House which was targeted by Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists in a horrific attack in November 2008. The diplomatic agenda, predictably, will revolve around agriculture, water management, cyber security, innovation, and defence.

While there is no question about the Indian public’s warmth for Israel, there have been some whispers of doubt recently about its government’s intentions. Indians, by and large, admire much about the Jewish state and even those who do not are indifferent rather than hostile. Israeli diplomats do not have to waste their time countering anti-Semitism or Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions sort of political movements in the South Asian country. That said, India’s recent vote in the United Nations General Assembly essentially condemning the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel followed by its sudden cancellation of a $500 million deal to purchase Spike anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) from the Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defence Systems has raised eyebrows in Jerusalem and among observers. The deal is apparently moving forward, according to latest media reports. Are good relations between India and Israel to be limited to Modi’s occasional charming tweets to his Israeli counterpart?

Such misgivings from Jerusalem are not only perfectly understandable but justified; yet the compulsions of India’s own domestic political chaos are also an important set of inputs to policy and must at least be understood if not tolerated for a fuller picture of the intentions of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party administration.

When Modi swept into office in 2014 in an election that was just short of a landslide, policy wonks warned his euphoric supporters that the nature of government policies is continuity and incremental change rather than the desired abrupt departure from the “idea of India” espoused by the Indian National Congress. This warning has been borne out to some extent – the economy, which Modi has correctly prioritised, has seen several small yet critical positive reforms but many of the more emotive (and less dry) issues that Modi’s core supporters care about such as education and culture have so far received short shrift; other matters such as terrorism and defence have seen some movement but will take a longer time to reveal the lasting impact of the new regime in Delhi.

Foreign policy, in so far as it does not pertain to the economy, appears to have been largely relegated to the boondocks. The immediate reason for this is the global experience of democracies that there are few votes in foreign affairs. India has yet to cultivate a large and vibrant foreign policy circle as might be observed older and more developed democracies and the community as it exists now has several foci and plenty of challenges regarding access to decision makers, policy documentation, a bureaucratic hostility to transparency, career opportunities, and funds. India’s foreign ministry has rarely been blessed with the sort of polymath ideal for the job, either in its politicians or its bureaucrats, even when the portfolio has remained with the prime minister. With insufficient attention from elected officials, governance slips into maintenance mode administered by the civil service and the policies of earlier decades continue unabated.

This is visible from India’s insistence on clinging to expired motifs such as strategic autonomy, a fancy 21st century upgraded phrase for non-alignment. For example, India recently courted Australia, Japan, and the United States in a security quadrilateral (Quad) that observers understand is designed to balance an increasingly aggressive China and in the same week participated in a trilateral forum with Russia and China. Similarly, India’s approach to the Palestinian question is based on Mohandas Gandhi’s fundamental ignorance of Jewish history that was supplemented by Jawaharlal Nehru’s own political inclinations; the policy was maintained as a hagiographic monument to the two men well after it had proven to be detrimental to Indian national interests.

It is no secret that India’s foreign ministry is understaffed, and the same is true of the ruling political party when it comes to policy formulation. Besides the core issues its supporters would like addressed, foreign policy remains a step-child of the BJP’s internal thinkers. The party seems to have forgotten that to replace an ideology, an alternative is needed. In essence, the BJP has tinkered with the edifice of the Nehruvian state and such incomplete measures occasionally fall short of the hopes of not just the citizens but even the party’s own lofty rhetoric.

It is often argued that India’s policy towards Israel must be tempered by the strategic considerations of its relations with other countries that may be hostile to the Jewish state. Domestic calculations regarding India’s large Muslim minority must also influence how close India can drift towards Israel. The problem with this argument is two-fold: first, it implicitly suspects all Indian Muslims of treason in that they would put the well-being of Palestine and Islam above Indian interests. Second, it cannot explain the tacit Arab acceptance of not just Israel in the face of a rising Iranian threat but even Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state: there were few protests in Arab streets after Donald Trump’s recognition of the Holy City as the capital of Israel. This flimsy argument, in addition to the bogey of seven million Indians returning from the Persian Gulf and the loss of $35 billion in remittances as Arab retaliation against India’s warming ties with Israel, are unfortunately treated as gospel by an intellectually anaemic coterie in the BJP and outside. While India may not strive to become Israel’s closest ally, there is plenty of room for it to move closer to the Middle Eastern democracy if it so wishes.

To repeat dozens of articles already, there are plenty of reasons for Delhi to desire closer ties. Beyond transactional considerations of trade and security, it is also important to remember that the tiny country has been among the more reliable suppliers of know-how and equipment. After the nuclear tests at Pokhran II when no one was willing to supply arms to India, Israel remained one of the very few markets still open. Similarly, the important role Israel played during Kargil is also undisputed.

Optimistic assessments of India’s recent uptick in relations with Israel opine that a change in policy cannot be abrupt, especially when drastic. This is simply not true: in one of the greatest about-turns in recent diplomatic history, the United States de-recognised Taiwan and recognised Communist China in its stead in 1979. The entire process took seven years from Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in February 1972 until the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations in January 1979. Such events are admittedly rare and challenging but pursuing a wrong policy for the sake of continuity is insanity. As mentioned earlier, the lack of political interest or vision within the BJP coupled with an understaffed foreign service does not allow for a nimble policy environment capable of quickly and thoroughly assessing the ramification of ideas on allies, security, economics, and international obligations.

A clear-eyed view of friends, enemies, and interests has the immediate benefit of signalling to partners that you are worth investing in; a bonus is that it gives others confidence in your national purpose and dependability in forging trade and security alliances. India’s waffling – sorry, strategic autonomy – will only ensure that it trails behind its rivals and fights its battles alone. France, despite being a member of NATO, has a far better track record of strategic autonomy than India ever had as a perennial “leading member” of the have-nots.

Nowadays, scholars hesitate to describe foreign systems or people as irrational. This is partly to avoid imposing the observer’s perspective and values on the subject and to allow for a potential alien framework in which things might make perfect sense. However, Indian foreign policy has long veered dangerously towards that word which must not be spoken. American leadership is defined in schools of thought – Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Jacksonian, and Wilsonian; in India, there is only the cult of Congress and no opposition party, despite the political cacophony, has come remotely close to offering a complete and alternate weltanshauung comprising economic, security, social, and cultural programmes. Diplomacy suffers the same fate. The real question is not if India has an Israel policy but if the BJP actually has a foreign policy.

Reclaiming David’s Kingdom


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לְזַרְעֲךָ֗ נָתַ֙תִּי֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את מִנְּהַ֣ר מִצְרַ֔יִם עַד־הַנָּהָ֥ר הַגָּדֹ֖ל נְהַר־פְּרָֽת׃ – בְּרֵאשִׁית‬‬ 15:18
To your descendants have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates – Bereshit 15:18

In its last major act of 2017, the Likud’s Central Committee voted unanimously to propose a resolution in the Knesset that would extend Israeli civilian jurisdiction to all Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, or what is also known as the West Bank. The vote comes barely three weeks after US president Donald Trump declared that the United States recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would be soon moving its embassy to the city from its present location in Tel Aviv. Trump’s declaration caused a minor crisis in the United Nations with the overwhelming majority of the world’s nation-states condemning the US decision.

Although many see the Central Committee’s decision as a ripple effect of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, the item had been tabled for discussion in May but was delayed by seven months. Neither is the desire to annex the West Bank new – the sentiment goes back to at least 1967 and several of Israel’s first generation had been opposed to the partition plan in November 1947 that created yet another Arab state in the British Palestinian mandate.

It would be wrong, however, to see the Central Committee’s vote in purely ideological terms. In an interesting recent study of the motives behind settlements, several scholars have argued that the majority of settlers do not share the ideology of the Gush Emunim or its descendants. Rather, they are preoccupied with quotidian socioeconomic concerns such as affordable housing, office commute, and a lower cost of living. This is not to deny the ideological attraction to the entirety of the land among certain segments of Israeli society.

There are also mundane, logistical issues that an extension of Israeli sovereignty over all settlements will solve. Judea and Samaria, or YOSH as their Hebrew acronym goes, is presently run by a military administration that has the jurisdiction of all territory that Israel has not officially claimed. No matter how well-intentioned such a bureaucracy is, it is simply not trained to handle the complexities of civilian demands and the duty is an unnecessary burden on the military. Furthermore, it is odious to democracies that the military rule over civilians. Handing over the settlements to the civilian authority makes much more sense.

The common counter-argument to extending Israeli sovereignty over the settlements in YOSH – it should be remembered that this is just a proposal by the Likud’s Central Committee to its members in the Knesset to introduce a resolution to the effect and that such a resolution must pass to become law – is that it violates Art. 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which Israel ratified in 1951. Yet there are several legal complications involved in applying the said piece of international law to the territory in question. The first is if the West Bank can even be considered occupied territory for the question immediately arises, occupied from whom? The San Remo Resolution (1920) and the Mandate for Palestine (1922) both saw YOSH, Gaza, and East Jerusalem as part of a Jewish state. Israeli control over the territory, however, came only after the Six-Day War in June 1967 when YOSH was taken from Jordan – which had itself annexed it in April 1950. Even before the Jordanian annexation, the Arabs had rejected UN Resolution 181 that proposed a separate Jewish state and yet another Arab state in the British mandatory territory of Palestine; an independent country called Palestine has never existed in all of history even for a day. Whether the Geneva Conventions govern relations between state parties and non-state entities is a legal debate of its own.

Although the international consensus is that Art 49 does apply to Jewish settlements, Morris Abram, part of the US team at the Nuremburg Trials and later one of the drafters of the Fourth Geneva Convention, clarified in 1990 that the Article “was not designed to cover situations like Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, but rather the forcible transfer, deportation or resettlement of large numbers of people.” This is because the language speaks in terms of government coercion to transfer people which is not the case in YOSH. Jewish settlements have mostly occurred on open land rather than in urban settings and Israeli law clearly states that privately held land may not be confiscated.

It is by virtue of negotiations with Israel that any recognition of Palestinian political rights come into existence. The series of talks, agreements, and memoranda between Israel and its interlocutors have created an entire unique and particular framework – a lex specialis – by which the question of settlements must be adjudicated.

What is interesting about the Central Committee vote is that Benjamin Netanyahu was not present for it; the Israeli prime minister has in the past voiced his support for a separate Palestinian state although his critics point out that Netanyahu has in fact taken steps in the other direction. At a time when his tenure is being rocked by a corruption investigation, allowing such a resolution to pass might win him easy support with the Right.

In concert with the law the Knesset just passed that has made the ceding of any part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians in an eventual peace settlement more difficult by raising the number of votes required to pass such a bill from a simple majority to an absolute majority, critics are fuming that the Likud Central Committee’s resolution is clear proof that the Israeli Right was never interested in a just peace and Trump’s declaration emboldened them to make an overt land grab that had so far at least had the decency to be conducted on the sly.

Beyond the cynicism, however, there could be a strategic reason behind the demand to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank. As Trump did three weeks ago with his Jerusalem declaration, the Likud has raised the price of delaying genuine peace talks for the Palestinians. Moderate Israelis to this day smart at the failure of Camp David Summit in July 2000 when Yasser Arafat was offered almost everything he could hope for and yet walked away from the table. The tortuous negotiating process during Oslo that ultimately had little effect in curbing terrorism has also soured many on peace. The Likud’s proposal is not yet law but allowing it to pass might be a signal by Netanyahu to the Palestinians that Israel is still holding some cards and the Palestinians do have more to lose.

Turning the screws on the Palestinians may not yield any results but then, nothing else has either. Israel has no room to manoeuvre with a foe that still declares in its charter that the Jewish state has no right to exist and calls for its destruction. Until Jerusalem has a partner for peace in the Arabs – as Egypt and then Jordan have demonstrated – the guns will not fall silent in the Holy Land. Between Trump and the Likud’s new playbook, it is just possible that they shake loose the peace process from its ossified status quo.