Sunday, December 18, 2005


India is the interest


Last Tuesday North Korea supposedly agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. The headline writers were all upbeat: 'North Korea signs pact on nuclear arms' (The Age, Australia), 'North Korea agrees to scrap nuclear weapons program,' (Bloomberg). And, from Reuters, a change of pace: 'Reclusive North Korea opens door to US tourists.'

The only dark cloud was an AP report the next day out of Seoul headlined: 'N. Korea accuses US of plotting attack' and warning that Pyongyang is 'fully ready' to respond with a 'strong retaliatory blow.'

That's the thing about headline writers - they cannot help focusing on big-picture breakthroughs, trusting the reader to plough through the fine print for a more comprehensive account.

Then there was the hoopla surrounding the Israel-Pakistan rapprochement, which culminated with President Pervez Musharraf's widely-heralded September 15 speech before a Jewish audience in New York City: 'A historic event,' (The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles), 'Pakistan pledges Israel ties,' (Totally and 'Pakistan may open Israel embassies' (The New York Sun).

But The Jerusalem Post got the tone just right: 'Musharraf: Israel must leave West Bank soon - Pakistan president tells 'Post' he has no timetable for ties with Israel.'

Over the weekend many analysts had sufficiently deconstructed Musharraf's speech to point out that there would be no embassies, diplomatic relations or exchange of tourists anytime soon.

Indeed, as the ADL's feisty Abraham Foxman put it, bluntly: 'What have we achieved? In [Musharraf's] world, in his culture, this is a major step. From our perspective it isn't.'

Still, Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress and a key player in helping to make the Musharraf connection, told The New York Jewish Week: 'We couldn't have expected him to become a Zionist Saturday night. It takes time.'

Well, while Jack Rosen waits for Musharraf's Zionist tendencies to bloom, we should pray this ephemeral infatuation of ours does not derail the relationship Israel has already established - with India.

I'M DUBIOUS of the claim by Khursheed Kasuri, Pakistan's foreign minister, that his country attached such 'great importance' to disengagement that it 'decided to engage Israel.' Everyone knows there have been on-and-off back-channel talks between Israel and Pakistan. Disengagement is a convenient peg, but something else had to explain Musharraf's willingness to go public just now and allow his foreign minister to publicly meet with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, shake hands with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in an orchestrated 'chance meeting' at the UN and make the Big Speech before the AJCongress audience.

Here's my suspicion: The object of Islamabad's affection is not Jerusalem, but Washington. Pakistan has come under increasing criticism for its handling of the American-led war against Islamist terrorism inside Afghanistan. People in Washington are wondering just how on-board Pakistan really is.

While the Pakistani leadership continues to maintain ties with the Taliban insurgency, it seems genuinely committed to fighting al-Qaida. Still, there are suspicions that the last thing Islamabad wants is to actually capture Osama bin Laden. He's probably hiding in Pakistan's mountainous border region with Afghanistan. Were OBL captured, there would be less justification for continued US economic aid (to the tune of $3 billion a year) to the military regime in Islamabad.

So in this context, a public flirtation with Israel is good for Pakistan's image. It buys Musharraf time with an impatient Congress and administration.

Secondly, with India and the US growing increasingly closer - including joint military exercises - Pakistan hopes to play its American Jewish card to hinder ties between Washington and New Delhi.

Can Israel's friends in Washington be so easily co-opted? In a word, yes.

India and America have already had a row over Iran. Congressman Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to have served in Congress, says he's infuriated by a recent visit to Teheran by Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh and the possibility that New Delhi and the mullahs are cooperating on nuclear weapons.

But analysts of India-Iran relations insist there is no nuclear cooperation. They say that India simply needs to get on with Iran, if for no other reason than because 80 percent of India's oil comes from Iran. And India has the largest non-Arab Shi'ite population outside Iran, so there is a good domestic reason for keeping relations with Teheran on an even keel. Finally, Iran is an important transit country for Indian goods (which can't pass through Pakistan).

And then there's this minor detail: Pakistan, not India, helped boost Iran's nuclear ambitions. It was A.Q. Khan, father of Islamabad's nuclear program, who supplied deadly technology to the regime in Teheran.

I'M NOT arguing that good ties with Pakistan are undesirable; of course they're a good thing. In fact, I doubt the Indians themselves would be bothered if Israel and Pakistan had normal diplomatic relations; many countries have ties with both states. But as we cozy up to Pakistan we have every reason to be mindful of India's sensitivities.

New Delhi granted Israel recognition in 1950; we've had a consular presence in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, since 1952 (and a visit by Moshe Dayan back in 1978 broke the ice a bit more).

Relations took off in 1992 when Israel and India established full diplomatic relations. And boy, did they take off. The total turnover in trade between our two countries stands at a staggering $2.8 billion a year. I'm told Israel's annual 'trade' with Pakistan stands at about $6,000. India is Israel's ninth largest trading partner (and second largest in Asia). In the first six months of 2005, India-Israel trade increased by 23.5%.

Both countries have put up $1 million each to foster bilateral economic development. India goes out of its way to attract Israeli business. And our connection with India goes beyond a buy-sell relationship. Joint R&D projects are flourishing.

There is also a robust, and mutually beneficial, defense relationship. And as the Post's diplomatic correspondent, Herb Keinon, pointed out in a September 1 analysis piece, Israel is a key arms supplier to New Delhi.

Then there is the cultural connection: 70,000 Jews of Indian ancestry live in Israel and tens of thousands of young Israelis trek to India after army service to decompress and broaden their horizons.

THE MORE you compare India and Pakistan, the more obvious it becomes that we must not jeopardize our valuable relationship with the former out of ineptitude or arrogance.

India is a genuine multicultural democracy: Its president, and father of its nuclear program, is a Muslim. To date, not a single Indian Muslim has been implicated in Islamist violence.

Pakistan, in contrast, is completely controlled by its military junta. Not much - not even 'spontaneous' burnings of Israeli flags - happens without the army's acquiescence.

India is home to more than a billion people; Pakistan's population is 162 million. India's GDP is something like $3.319 trillion; Pakistan's $347.3 million.

With all that, a cultural gulf separates our two ancient peoples, Jews and Indians. I wish, for example, that India more fully appreciated the genuinely non-colonial nature of the Jewish national liberation struggle. But the relationship is on the right track.

IN MARCH 1848 Lord Palmerston told the British House of Commons: 'We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.'

That's the way nation-states operate. But it's an approach that requires wisdom in accurately identifying the national interest, and diplomatic skill in calibrating between competing ones.

So while headline writers can get away with a degree of hyperbole, those who conduct Israeli foreign policy need to cautiously weigh their actions and make sure, among other things, that India knows how much we prize our bilateral connection.

– From a September 26, 2005 column in The Jerusalem Post

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