A breach of trust

Print edition : December 17, 2004

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pays homage to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the Embassy of Palestine in New Delhi. -

The government at the Centre seems intent on persisting with the special relationship with Israel, established by the National Democratic Alliance government, despite the ruling alliance's commitment to support the Palestinian cause.

INDIA has enjoyed a long-standing friendship with the Palestinian people. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru had in their writings and speeches talked about the injustice meted out to Palestinians. Gandhi was against the partitioning of Palestine and said that Palestinians should not pay for the crimes of Europeans. Until the early 1990s, New Delhi's stance towards the Palestinian cause was a principled one. India spoke loudly at various international fora on behalf of Palestinians.

When the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its leader Yasser Arafat were vilified as being "terrorist", India allowed the PLO to open an office in its capital. In the early 1970s, delegations representing the PLO and Al Fatah, its main constituent, started making regular visits to India and soon built strong links with the Congress and the Left parties. A veteran Palestinian diplomat, who was part of the first Al Fatah delegation to India, recalled that all the political parties barring the Jan Sangh welcomed it. The Jan Sangh, the earlier avatar of the the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), organised a demonstration outside the hotel in which the delegates stayed.

May 21, 1982: Yasser Arafat with Indira Gandhi in New Delhi.-N. SRINIVASAN

Arafat enjoyed a close political and personal rapport with Indira Gandhi, whom he affectionately called his "sister", and Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as Prime Minister. Because of his frequent visits to India, Arafat's face became instantly recognisable to the man on the street in India. The Palestinian leader was present at the funeral of both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. He was virtually inconsolable when the last rites for Indira Gandhi were being performed.

India was the first non-Arab country to recognise Palestinian statehood. It would have been a fitting gesture had Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gone to the Egyptian capital of Cairo for the funeral ceremony of the Palestinian leader. It would have also been a timely message of solidarity to the beleaguered Palestinian and Arab people. The South African and Indonesian Presidents attended the funeral. India was represented by External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh and Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav.

The Oslo peace accords gave many governments, including India, the necessary "rationale" to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. It was the Congress government under P.V. Narasimha Rao that started the process in 1992, but it was under the BJP-led government that Indo-Israeli relations became really close. At a time when Arafat was virtually imprisoned within his office in Ramallah, the BJP-led government thought it fit to invite Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon for a state visit to India. Sharon was Arafat's life-long enemy; he has more Palestinian blood on his hands than any other living Zionist leader. Before embarking on his Indian visit, Sharon repeated his threat of physically eliminating Arafat.

In the last couple of years, New Delhi had virtually forgotten the Palestinian leader and the sufferings of his people as a result of Israeli policies. Sharon, for all practical purposes, has junked the two-state theory to which the international community, including India, stands committed. The inhuman Israeli policies towards Palestinians, the targeted assassination of Palestinian leaders, and the building of the apartheid wall were all virtually glossed over by New Delhi during National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rule. Instead, military and strategic ties with Israel were given importance. The Palestinian envoy to India, Khalid Sheikh, one of the longest-serving diplomats, was virtually declared persona non grata by the NDA government. He was recalled by Arafat under pressure from New Delhi. In the last couple of years, Israel has emerged as India's second biggest supplier of defence weaponry. When the NDA government took over, Indo-Israeli defence trade was only around $250 million annually. Today it stands at $1.5 billion and is rising steeply. Israeli defence sales have been projected to exceed $5 billion in 2004. The profits generated by the Israeli state are, no doubt, being ploughed into the occupied territories to build new facts on the ground.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government seems intent on continuing with the same pro-Israeli policies of the previous government. Until the Palestinian problem is resolved, Islamic countries, in particular, will view the "special relationship" between New Delhi and Tel Aviv with anger and suspicion. Already, according to diplomatic observers, the perception on the Arab street is that New Delhi has become a de facto ally of Israel, using terrorism as the rationale.

In West Asia, Israel is viewed as an adjunct state of the United States. According to an Arab diplomat, the developments in the last few years in West Asia and elsewhere have made many people believe that the West is "waging the Fourth World War against Islam". The Third World War was the "Cold War", which the West waged successfully against the socialist bloc.

Those in India arguing in favour of continuing the special relationship with Israel claim that the Jewish state is the lone "democracy" in West Asia, an argument similar to the one emanating from Washington. This argument is being made at a time when countries and human rights organisations want Israel to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. The crimes include the mass expulsion of Palestinians in the 1948-49 war and the war crimes committed subsequently against the Palestinian people. The United Nations General Assembly had, in fact, passed a resolution in 1975 stating that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination". More than 3,000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli occupation forces in the past four years. Many of those killed are women and children.

September 9, 2003: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon in New Delhi.-KAMAL NARANG

As Arafat was struggling for life at the Percy Military Hospital in Paris, the Indian government was busy preparing for the high-level political consultations with Israel that were to be held in the third week of November. The previous BJP-led government was committed to holding high-level meetings between the two governments every six months. The Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the UPA government stresses the historical commitment of India to the Palestinian cause. The Left parties, whose support is crucial for the stability of the present government, have been demanding a change in the government's policies towards Israel. Many leading Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) members have called for partial sanctions against Israel until it starts implementing the accords it has signed and allows Palestinians to form an independent and viable state.

However, despite the CMP and the protests from the Left parties, the present government seems intent on persisting with its special relationship with Israel. A joint working group on counter-terrorism of the two countries will be meeting at the end of November. Indian officials will be visiting Israel in early December to sign an agreement on counter-terrorism that would include the sharing of intelligence on "terrorist groups" operating in West Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. India, like many other members of the international community, seems to have brought the Israeli argument about "reigning in terror groups". The Palestinian grouping Hamas, which today is the most popular party in the occupied territories, is classified as a "terrorist" outfit by the U.S. and Israeli governments. The international community has conveniently chosen to forget that Israel is the only country in which its own "peace-makers" are assassinated. It was the killing of Yitzhak Rabin that started the unravelling of the peace process.

The only concession being made to Indian and Arab public opinion by the UPA government is the cancellation of joint military exercises with Israel. At the same time, the Indian government has let it be known that it is about to conclude a new defence deal worth $230 million with Israel. Natwar Singh, speaking to the media after the funeral of Arafat, said: "Good relations with Israel should not come in the way of expressing sympathy and our support to the Palestinian people".

After the high-level discussions that took place in New Delhi just five days after Arafat's death, the Indian side assured the Israelis that the ties between the two countries would not be affected by the change of government in New Delhi. A joint statement issued on November 17 said that both countries had "wide ranging and constructive exchange of views in the spirit of friendship and mutual understanding". According to reports from Tel Aviv, Israeli officials have said that both sides exchanged views on the situation in West Asia and the peace process.

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