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Modi’s balancing act in the Middle East

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If India plays a positive role for peace in the region, it might help secure a seat on the UN Security Council

By Mustapha Karkouti, Special to Gulf News
17:02 February 13, 2018
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In one of his tweets during his recent Middle East tour, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that his country “will always support Palestine’s development journey”. He explained that the friendship between India and Palestine “had stood the test of time” … as the people of Palestine “have shown remarkable courage in the face of several challenges”.

Modi repeated the same sentiment during his three-hour long visit to Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian National Authority leadership. His statements sounded subtle and pragmatic. He was remarkably careful not to appear taking sides between Israel and Palestine. He refrained from directing any criticism of the brutal, continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land or Israel’s vicious expansionist colonial policy. But most importantly, Modi’s approach seems to be reflecting the new thinking of India’s current foreign policy on the Arab-Israel crisis. They could also indicate to a possible future role that India may play to revive the morbid peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Unlike former Indian prime ministers, particularly those of the long line of the Gandhi dynasty who closely embraced the Palestinian cause to their heart, Modi presents to the world, as well as the region the new India of the 21st century. India is now the largest market for Israeli military products, buying around $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) annually of weaponry in recent years. Though it does not represent more than 2 per cent of India’s entire world trade, but it equals 45 per cent of Israel’s total military sales.

Modi’s approach seems to be reflecting the new thinking of India’s current foreign policy on the Arab-Israel crisis.”-Mustapha Karkouti

Opening doors

However, the 1.3 billion people’s India that Modi’s government is leading now, is totally different from the India the world knew during the second half of last century. Opening to the world in the last two decades, helped propel India to an advanced position among the world’s leading countries. Though India is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a membership which is long overdue, India matters, and Modi wants to make this very clear. India’s ambition to become a permanent member of the Security Council is not new. Many believe if India manages to play a positive role on the peace front of the Middle East, this might ease its way to secure its seat on the Council. When it comes to the Middle East, Modi made it clear that his government backs an independent Palestinian state but emphasised this must be done through dialogue with Israel. His visit to the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah was considered by Palestinian leaders as “historic”.

In a way it is, mainly for two reasons. First, it is the first visit ever by an Indian prime minister to the Occupied Territories. Second, it seems the visit was intentionally done through a direct helicopter flight from the Jordanian capital, Amman, rather than a hyphenated drop over after visiting Israel last July, as many world leaders usually do. Prior to visiting Ramallah, India’s prime minister met Jordan’s King Abdullah during which he discussed the peace prospects following the announcement of the US president, Donald Trump, to recognise [occupied] Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The relationship between India and Palestine goes back several decades and it is solidly based on deep-rooted historic links. The relationship pre-dates the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah and dates to the early 1970s, when Indira Gandhi’s government established diplomatic relations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Indira Gandhi frequently hosted the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and solidly supported the PLO’s admittance into substantially significant numbers of international forums. India maintained its support exclusively to the PLO and Palestinian cause on the world stage and resisted various kinds of pressure to recognise Israel. This situation changed in 1992 when Israel and India established relations, following the infamous Madrid Conference in 1991, sponsored by the US and former Soviet Union where Israeli officials entered into face to face negotiations with delegations from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and — for the first time — individuals from Palestine.

The Indian-Israeli relationship continued to improve following the signing of the Oslo Accords by Arafat and Israel’s then premier Yitzhak Rabin, in a ceremony hosted by the former president Bill Clinton held in the White House. However, the bilateral relations began to rapidly warm up since Modi’s ruling party, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), won the election in 1992.

But the world’s international relationship in 2017 has considerably changed from what it was in the past. As the former Soviet Union collapsed, the non-alignment bloc, of which India was the leading player, gradually withered away. The new millennium has witnessed the birth of the so-called Brics countries, a lose association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. However, the question remains whether Modi’s India will be able to energetically facilitate conditions to revive the Middle East peace process where many regional and international players have miserably failed.

Mustapha Karkouti is a columnist and former president of the Foreign Press Association, London. Twitter: @mustaphatache

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