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.

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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.

Not a Mahatma, Just Mohandas

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Kumaraswamy, PR. Squaring the Circle: Mahatma Gandhi and the Jewish National Home. New Delhi: K W Publishers Pvt Ltd, 2017. 234 pp.

Mohandas Gandhi was a controversial figure. Admired by hundreds of millions, he is best known for his non-violent resistance to the British rule of India. In the aftermath of the British retreat from the subcontinent in August 1947 and his assassination five months later, Gandhi has become the subject of hagiographies and most of his other political beliefs have been obscured from public memory. One such issue is his position on the question of the creation of an independent Jewish state in the British mandate of Palestine. PR Kumaraswamy’s latest book, Squaring the Circle: Mahatma Gandhi and the Jewish National Home brings this question to the fore at a most opportune time when India is reconsidering its relations with the Jewish state.

Those even vaguely familiar with Indo-Israeli relations are aware that Gandhi opposed the partition of Palestine in 1947. It has been widely assumed that this was because the Indian leader could not support the creation of a state along religious lines in Palestine while condemning the same in northwestern and eastern India. However, Gandhi’s view on the Jewish question was formed much before the demands for Pakistan became loud and later solidified out of ignorance, political expedience, and an ideological obduracy that emolliated only in his final years in the face of the horrors of World War II. Squaring the Circle is a most helpful effort that methodically compiles Gandhi’s exposure to Jews, Judaism, and Zionism from his South Africa days until the end of World War II. Kumaraswamy also makes the important distinction between Jews and Zionists – not all Jews were or are Zionists and the two spring from entirely different, some may say opposing, ideologies.

Zionism was a relatively new movement when Gandhi was in South Africa. Of course, the Jews had been praying ‘L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim‘ at Passover and Yom Kippur for over a millennium but the first aliyah in 1882 was almost a disaster; Jewish immigration to Israel was a trickle until the Balfour Declaration in November 1917. Gandhi had left South Africa for India in 1915. His Jewish friends – primarily the Lithuanian-born German Hermann Kallenbach and the English Henry Polak – were, unsurprisingly, not Zionists, at least at the time, and the Holy Land rarely cropped up in their conversations.

In fact, Gandhi’s entire understanding of Judaism came from Christianity and after he returned to India, Islam. While the Indian leader would eventually sympathise with the plight of the Jews throughout history, it was not without repeating sectarian calumnies against them. For example, in his infamous article titled The Jews in Harijan in 1938, Gandhi wrote, “Indeed, it is a stigma against them (that is, the Jews) that their ancestors crucified Christ.” In response to sharp criticism over the article, Gandhi asked, “Are they (the Jews) not supposed to believe in eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth?” confusing the Babylonian king Hammurabi who lived some eight centuries before the first kingdom of the Israelites was founded for the Jews.

Similarly, Gandhi was also influenced by Islamic portrayals of history and conceded that Palestine was Jazirat ul-Arab. Though the term technically refers to only the Arabian peninsula, Indians at the turn of the 20th century understood it to encompass Constantinople, Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina – in essence, the complete domains of Islam in the Middle East. Kumaraswamy notes that several Indian leaders frequently used the term as synonymous with Dar ul-Islam. To see Palestine in this manner was to accept the classical Islamic claim that once a land is held by a Muslim force, it must forever be considered Islamic; the ancient Jewish – and pagan – presence in the land seems to hold no value for Gandhi. He had accepted and internalised the radical interpretations of Muslims figures like Maulana Abdul Bari and Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari who quoted hadith demanding that “Christians, Jews, and idolaters be removed from Jazirat ul-Arab at all costs.”

Additionally, Gandhi’s rejection of Jewish claims on the Holy Land came while privileging Islamic claims – in all fairness, all three Abrahamic religions have some sort of claim on the region. This point was lost on the Indian leader altogether.

The Zionists made several overtures to India’s apostle of peace from September 1931 when Gandhi was in London for the Round Table Conference. The Zionists had noticed Gandhi’s stature among several notables in Europe and the United States and his support could prove influential in their own dealings with the Western powers. The results of the overtures are well known but Squaring the Circle contains a shocking revelation: several of the letters that were sent Gandhi by the Zionists were intercepted by his personal secretary, Pyarelal Nayyar, and destroyed. The secretary admitted to as much in an interview in the early 1970s, defending his deeds by arguing that the correspondence would have tarnished his master’s historical memory –  a sad commentary on how Indians approach history to this day.

India’s Hindu-Muslim politics made it difficult for Gandhi to develop a soft spot for Zionism if he did not have one already by the time he left South Africa, argues Kumaraswamy. However, if Venkat Dhulipala’s thesis in Creating a New Medina is to be believed, Gandhi either woefully misread the communal equations or stubbornly persisted with his own ideology. Gandhi’s absolute commitment to the Khilafat Movement, something even Mohammad Ali Jinnah was not keen on, bewildered even Arabs and Ottomans. For an anti-imperialist, Gandhi was remarkably considerate of the Ottoman Empire!

Gandhi’s reckless pursuit of an irrelevant (to India) Khilafat agenda constrained his options as competition between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League for the support of Indian Muslims spilled out into the open. The League was able to dictate the terms of the Palestine question and push Congress into positions it might not have taken otherwise. Squaring the Circle makes the fair observation that Gandhi might not have said more on Palestine had it not been repeatedly brought into Indian political discourse by relation to (British) imperialism, or the Congress’ tussle with the Muslim League. First manipulated by the (Shaukat and Mohammad) Ali brothers and later by Jinnah, it became politically difficult for Gandhi to take a softer stance on Zionism even if he had been so inclined.

Gandhi objected to Zionism for its violence against Arabs as well. Yet his views on ahimsa are not only a radical departure from Hindu scriptures but they have also never been practical. His suggestion to the Jews, for example, that they offer non-violent struggle against Adolf Hitler is not even worth a derisive laugh. Similarly, Gandhi condemned Jewish violence but remained silent on the several Arab riots that marred 1920s and 1930s mandatory Palestine even after the meetings between the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseni, and the Nazi leadership had made Arab intentions ominously clear. While Gandhi stated that he did not support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine by force, he conveniently ignored the bloody history of Islamic conquests that left them in possession of that land.

Interestingly, Gandhi’s views on Zionism did change. Kumaraswamy draws attention to a nuanced shift in Gandhi’s views in the last few years of his life when Gandhi admitted to American journalist Louis Fischer from jail in 1942 that “the Jews have a good case… If the Arabs have a claim to Palestine, the jews have a prior claim.” This is a profound change from his views barely four years earlier. After World War II, Gandhi stopped objecting to a national Jewish home in Palestine but maintained his criticism of the violence perpetrated by the Irgun and Etzel. Kumaraswamy also brings to the fore Gandhi’s remark in the same infamous 1938 Harijan article that “if there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of, and for, humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a race, would be completely justified.” It is this commitment to the scholarly enterprise that makes Squaring the Circle a truly recommendable book.

Even in his realisation of the Jewish case, Gandhi ultimately falls short though less due to his failures this time. His suggestion of non-violence is obvious but even his comparison of Jewish ghettos in Nazi Europe to Indian ghettos in Transavaal indicates that he did not fully comprehend the atrocities the Jews had just been subjected to; however, it was not until late 1945 that news of the Endlösung would spread outside Europe. Kumaraswamy objects to Gandhi’s equating Nazi Germany with imperial Britain but Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts makes a compelling case to the contrary, not to mention Madhusree Mukerjee’s Churchill’s Secret War.

It is a pleasure to read how Kumaraswamy has dealt with a complex issue with several variables and shades of meaning with nuance and confidence in Squaring the Circle. The book is especially relevant now when India has moved from a passive recognition of Israel in 1950 to the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992 and is now considering a firmer embrace under the Narendra Modi government. For too long has Gandhi been the foil of those who wished to see a moral case in India’s support of Palestine; Kumaraswamy’s research makes that position no longer tenable.

The exemplary use of primary and secondary sources has resulted in a rare occurrence in the historical craft where a book might be said to be truly definitive on a subject. Though there are always a few tantalising strands that could be further explored – why the Zionists cared so much about winning Gandhi to their cause, for example – Kumaraswamy has stayed true to his topic of Gandhi’s thoughts on the Palestinian question.

Squaring the Circle forces us to step away from the simplistic binaries of pro- and anti- Zionism/Arabs to consider the historical circumstances that shaped Gandhi’s views. They were largely formed from incomplete or erroneous information and shaped by political exigencies of Indian politics. Yet Gandhi was honest and bold enough to make small yet significant concessions in his position on Zionism and Palestine in the last five years of his life. The real question is if Indians, who are so used to interpreting their historical figures in absolute binaries, can accommodate Gandhi’s complete thoughts on Israel into their historical narrative. Perhaps some might even be bold enough to wonder why Gandhi’s views from 70 years ago must still shape India’s destiny. Regardless, for those interested in India’s relations with Israel and Palestine, Kumaraswamy’s Squaring the Circle is an indispensable read.