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An Indo-Arab blunder?

Mustafa El-Feki

Over the years, the Arab world has let India down even though the Asian giant championed the Palestinian cause, writes Mustafa El-Feki *
When I compare how India used to view the Palestinian question, back when I was counsellor to the Egyptian Embassy in New Delhi 25 years ago, with how it does now, I cannot help but wonder how things change. I was posted in New Delhi in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when India was a major supporter of the Palestinian cause. The very idea of having diplomatic ties with Israel was offensive to most Indians.

I once monitored a meeting of late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi with a group of Jewish Indians in Mumbai and then wrote an article about it for the Cairo-based periodical Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya (Foreign Policy), speculating on the future of relations between India and Israel. In response, the Indian ambassador in Cairo filed an official protest with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, expressing outrage that I brought up the possibility that India may one day move close to Israel. At present, relations between New Delhi and Israel are of strategic nature, with both countries in close touch, waging a common war against terror. Both have succeeded in damning the Palestinian resistance and the Kashmir insurgence as terrorist, not national liberation movements. India and Israel cooperate in many fields, including military and nuclear technology. So much we know for fact.

One question is in order, however. What made India change its mind and throw itself in the arms of a country that occupies Arab and Palestinian land, to the point where it has played host to Ariel Sharon? India and Israel have their own separate political agendas. India wishes to have access to US and Israeli technology, particularly in the development of weapons. Israel, for its part, wishes to have the political backing of a powerful nation. Besides, both countries have a common interest in monitoring the nuclear programmes of Iran and Pakistan. Let's now examine some of the reasons that made India change its mind.

First, we have made the error of viewing the Indian- Pakistani conflict from an Islamic perspective. We have tried to "Islamise" the ongoing conflict in south Asia, posing as protectors of Islam and custodians of the international community. And we have overlooked the regional role of India, with Arab leaders showing up in New Delhi much less frequently than before.

Secondly, when India applied for membership of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the response was extraordinary. A country with 120 million Muslim citizens applied to membership and what happened? Islamic countries, in typical naiveté, rejected the Indian application, imagining this would please Pakistan and teach India a lesson. The right thing to do, of course, would have been to co-opt this major country and give it OIC membership.

This would have put the brakes on Indian rapprochement with Israel. An Arab-Indian rapprochement may have even alleviated, not increased, the pressure on Pakistan. Imparting a religious coating on a conflict between two neighbouring countries was a political misjudgement, and a sign of Arab miscalculation.

Thirdly, India was close to the former Soviet Union and, as a major country of the Non-Aligned Movement, critical of US policies. That was during the Cold War, but things have changed since then. India has forged close links with the US due to political as well as technological reasons. And its newly acquired superiority in ICT proves it knew what it was doing. India has also succeeded in replacing Pakistan as the US favourite country in the region. I wouldn't be surprised to see India assume the role of a policeman in the Indian Ocean and the outskirts of the Gulf, with US blessing and with the aim of encircling so-called Islamic violence. This would be in harmony with Israel's agenda, and it may pave the way to a scheme of joint control over the Greater Middle East.

Fourthly, Some Arab countries have pursued a balanced policy towards the conflict in south Asia. Under Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt was so close to India that the latter had no motive to flirt with Israel. Back then, India was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian people, and I still remember that the Palestinian ambassador to New Delhi enjoyed the privilege of meeting the Indian prime minister at anytime he wished to do so. But as the Islamic phenomenon spread and some Arab policies acquired a religious tint, India grew visibly suspicious of the Arab and Islamic worlds. To make things worse, Arab diplomacy in India was lackadaisical over the past two decades.

Fifthly, the Indians are a practical and smart people, so are the Pakistanis. It is advisable for us to maintain balanced relations with both. Both countries are nuclear powers and are highly regarded across the Arab world. Having good ties with both countries makes sense at these turbulent times.

We have lost India so far for no good reason, I should say. We have failed to stay close to an industrially advanced state, one with nuclear and space capabilities. We have failed to do so although there is a clear ethnic resemblance between the Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the people in our Arab world. It is time we mend this error. It is time to bring Arab countries closer to both India and Pakistan, rather than take one side or keep our distance altogether. I believe the Arabs have only themselves to blame for India's change of heart on the Palestinian question.

In early 2003, I was in New Delhi with a parliamentary delegation. It was my first to India in over 20 years. I met the Indian national security adviser, who is a veteran politician, and he told me his country, despite its close links with Israel, is committed to legitimate Palestinian rights. Such attitude is encouraging, and it makes me think that the Arab League, whose current secretary-general was once an ambassador to India, should start a coordinated effort to improve Arab links with India. We need to bring back the balance to our policy and revive the old friendship, while maintaining our close bonds with Pakistan.

Some people have taken issue with what I mentioned about the need to integrate the Arab mindset into the current global mindset. They called my assertion an assault on local identity and a sabotage of the pan-Arab character. I still believe that this is a responsible way of addressing our problems, that this is the way forward in the context of comprehensive reform -- the reform that countries in this region seek, the reform that emanates from their own fabric and expresses their own resolve. We must distinguish between two things. One is comprehensive revision, which makes transformation a part of reform. The other is uncalculated compromises that lead to a general sense of capitulation of other people's wishes. Only the latter I am against. International isolation is impossible. Let me say this loud and clear. This is what history tells us, this is the spirit of the age, and this is how things are.

* The writer is chairman of parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.


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