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  Opinion   Columnists  11 Oct 2023  Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Can India play constructive role for peace in West Asia?

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Can India play constructive role for peace in West Asia?

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Oct 11, 2023, 1:14 am IST
Updated : Oct 11, 2023, 1:14 am IST

Palestinians will never accept their present subordinate position as permanent subjugation.

Palestinian health officials reported scores of deaths from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. (AP/PTI)
 Palestinian health officials reported scores of deaths from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. (AP/PTI)

Now is the time for Prime Minister Naren-dra Modi to claim the global role that he yearns for instead of appearing to be a servile camp follower of the West. Sadly, that chance was missed on October 7, when the first day of the recrudescence of vicious violence between Israel and the Palestinian militants prompted the Prime Minister’s announcement: “We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour”.

It would have been far more to the point for Mr Modi to commit himself to the negotiating strategy finalised at the peace conference in Madrid in 1991 which led to the now virtually forgotten 1993 Oslo Accords whereby American-protected Israel and the Palestinians recognised each other, and Israel ceded some governing functions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority. Although the two-state formula of Israel and Pales-tine co-existing side by side as sovereign entities was not explicitly stated and never formally accepted by Israel, it remains the only rational answer to a problem that is otherwise bound to erupt every so often in bloody rebellions.

No other country in the world has been allowed to conquer neighbouring territories and get away with it. No other power rules and bullies its neighbourhood through a mix of armed might, fear of imminent attacks, nuclear blackmail, American dollars and technological assistance. India should note, however, that the latest Hamas attacks reveal that all the military and technological assets are not on Israel's side. If Hamas can once penetrate Israel’s formidable and supposedly invincible Iron Dome air defence system, it can do so again. The war must send ripples of nervousness through conservative Arab societies like those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and cause deep consternation in the Pentagon which sees Israel as a prized protégé.

Not that the religious identity of Israel’s adversaries are of much interest to Washington, something that cannot be said of today’s official India. Tel Aviv had always held that Congress-ruled New Delhi opposed Israel not because it feared the Islamic world’s United Nations response but because it depended on Muslim votes at home. Religion may still be a major factor in Indian calculations, explaining the Prime Minister’s response to Hamas's action. His condemnation of “terrorist attacks” (reminiscent of Indian political rhetoric about Jammu and Kash-mir, as well as Pakistan) was also a reminder that in the eyes of millions of West Asians (and possibly also Indians), Hamas activists are not terrorists but freedom fighters. On both counts, Mr Modi’s seemingly spontaneous post on X (formerly Twitter) ignored the first rule of mature and effective diplomacy — recognising that there is more than one side to every quarrel.

New Delhi’s propagandists can say that India is in good company, and that several international leaders, including from the United States, Argentina, Brazil and most European countries, similarly condemned Hamas. What is more relevant is that even some Arab League countries (Oman, Yemen, and Qatar) and non-Arab countries like Iran expressed support for the Palestin-ians, blaming Israel’s occupation of their homeland for the continued violence. A number of other countries (not India up to the time of writing) have also called for a ceasefire. Pro-Hamas demonstrations have been reported from many West Asian countries like Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Turkey, Bahrain and Iran. There was a small rally even in Berlin.

True, Mr Modi and his government must correct the imbalance of the past. India has been far from even-handed, instinctively taking the Palestinian side in most disputes. But lurching from one extreme to another only exposes the lack of substance behind Mr Modi’s dream of a global role. True, also, no government or BJP spokes-man has claimed the position of a global peacemaker, which often appeared to be the specialty of the Nehru years. But the repeated stress in recent weeks on India as the world’s most populous nation, its position as the fourth or fifth biggest economy, and the geopolitical implications of the Chan-drayaan-3 moon mission has underlined the importance attached to the self-assumed titles of “Vishwa Mitra” (universal friend) and “Vishwa ka atut saathi” (world’s reliable partner) that India flaunts.

New Delhi’s specific position seems to be that being acknowledged as a “developed country” with a United Nations Security Council seat would benefit others. As the Prime Minister proclaimed from the Red Fort’s ramparts on this year’s Independence Day: “With India’s participation in the global economy and the global supply chain and with the place that India has earned for itself, I can say with full confidence that the current scenario in India today has brought a guarantee of stability in the world.”

Perhaps it has. But any continuation of that good work demands facing up to at least two realities. First, Israel was founded in 1948 by dispossessing the region’s native Palestinian population to make room for Jewish settlers, mainly from Eastern Europe, at least partly as a sop to the guilty conscience of the Western powers who did nothing to prevent Hitler’s barbaric treatment of Jews under Nazi control, which led to the Holocaust. Palestinian villagers are still paying a bitter price for Europe’s collaboration with Hitler. Second, this latest upsurge — which is already being called the “Third Intifada” (uprising) — confirms that the position on the ground may have changed for all time.

It has exposed the irrelevance of the Palestinian Authority which supposedly rules the conquered territories of the West Bank and Gaza (legally, also the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war and says it will never surrender) and of the 87-year-old Mah-moud Abbas whom the West used to weaken Yasser Arafat’s authority and who is now recognised as the “President of Palestine”. More to the point, it confirms that the Palestinians will never accept their present subordinate position as permanent subjugation.

Iran’s Islamic Develop-ment Organization may have been a trifle premature in celebrating this Third Intifada with hoardings advertising “Salam to beginning of the end of Israel”. But the beginning of the end of Palestinian suffering may be within sight. A process of talks must now be initiated to hasten the process by harmoniously identifying rights on both sides and the basis of an amicable settlement — a firm end to the Jewish housing colonies for instance — that leaves enough territory for a viable Palestinian state. Only the United States can underwrite that process. As a friend of both sides, India can play a constructive role.

Tags: hamas, israel-palestine conflict, gaza air strikes