Prime Minister Narendra Modi re-engaged with West Asian nations on 9-12 February when he became the first Indian prime minister to visit Palestine, re-connected with the UAE leadership for the fourth time in three years, and then affirmed India’s historic links with Oman.
With earlier sojourns in the region in 2015-16, when he visited the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar, and the two meetings with the Israeli prime minister more recently, he is the first Indian leader to have had such extensive interactions with West Asian leaders in so short a time. This process is expected to be carried forward with the visits to India of the Iranian and Saudi leaders shortly.
Every engagement of the prime minister has been marked by warmth and affirmations of the great esteem in which he personally and the nation he leads are held. Every capital sees India as a valued partner and is seeking to shape a “strategic partnership” based on enhanced political, security and defence ties.
All the leaders he met have also sought a greater Indian role in promoting security in the region, though no details have been spelt out, nor is there any indication so far of an Indian initiative in this regard. This is not surprising since the regional scenario is getting more complicated by the day, marked by visceral animosities among regional players engaged in bloody proxy conflicts, the abandonment of earlier priorities, re-shaping of alignments to obtain new regional balances, and increasingly intrusive postures of major world powers to define the region in terms of their own interests. And, lurking across the region is the shadow of a destructive region-wide war.
Modi in Palestine
Palestine was obviously a major diplomatic challenge for the prime minister on his recent tour. He got several things right: he affirmed India’s historic support for Palestinian aspirations; he applauded the role of Yasser Arafat in the Palestinian struggle and praised the Palestinians for their “great tenacity and courage in the face of persistent challenges and adversity”. He also extended development assistance valued at $ 50 million.
But, while committing himself to “an early realisation of a sovereign and independent state of Palestine”, he pointedly failed to refer to the prospective state being “united and viable” and having East Jerusalem as its capital, formulations that have been standard in Indian pronouncements on this subject for several years. Clearly, Modi was taking several new factors into account.
The most important among them are India’s blossoming ties with Israel: the latter has no interest in a peace process, will continue with the expansion of settlements in occupied territories (which already number 140, with 600,000 settlers), and has no intention of parting with united Jerusalem. Linked with this is the Trump announcement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the US intention to shift its embassy to Jerusalem possibly by next year.
But, there is more. Trump has announced his commitment to a settlement of the Israel-Palestine issue based on a “deal of the century”, which his son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working on for some time. This is expected to be in keeping with Israel’s wish-list and totally unacceptable to the Palestinians. Trump has also said he might hold back the announcement of his plan since he sees neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians interested in making peace.
Anticipating a negative Palestinian response, Trump has sought to intimidate the Palestinians with his position on Jerusalem, by cutting off US assistance to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that since 1948 has been looking after Palestinian refugees, and by threatening to remove the head of the Palestine Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, if he opposes the US offer. Before his foray into Palestine, Modi would have been briefed on the important aspects of the US plan and hence tailored his remarks to remain in line with what might be put on the table by the Americans and their Israeli allies.
Regional media have already provided details of the US offer. Al Khaleej of the UAE points out that the Trump “deal” has removed the refugees’ right of return, the issue of settlements and the status of Jerusalem from the discussion.
Again, the peace plan will be a “interim solution”, not the final settlement: the proposed Palestinian “state” will be located on some parts of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, with certain neighbourhoods and villages in Jerusalem’s suburbs, mainly the village of Abu Dis, to be built as its “capital”; the Old City and historic Jerusalem, including Arab neighbourhoods, will remain part of Israel. The borders of this “state” and the settlements will remain under Israeli control, even as Israel will exercise sovereignty over the entire territory.
Modi’s remarks on the prospective Palestinian “state” should be seen in this background – clearly, there is no place here for a “united” or “viable” Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Central to the US approach to the Palestinian question is to pursue the matter not as a bilateral Israel-Palestine issue, but as a “regional solution” in which other neighbouring Arab states will have a role in imposing this arrangement on the Palestinian people. This reflects the significant changes that have taken place in regional alignments, at the heart of which is the Israeli-Saudi engagement.
The two countries were brought together in late 2013 in response to the US-led negotiations with Iran on the nuclear weapons issue when they shared concerns about Iran’s expanding role and influence in the region. They worked together against the deal in the US, using Saudi money and pro-Israeli groups to lobby Congress and the media. While Obama’s persistence still saw the deal going through Congress, Saudi-Israel ties were forged in this crisis and have got stronger, particularly after the inauguration of the Trump presidency.
Several factors are in play. Besides the Israeli concern that Iran is still capable of reviving its nuclear weapons programme, both countries are alarmed by what they see as expanding Iranian influence in the region, particularly its mobilisation of Shia communities and militia to project its power in different regional theatres – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Both have been emboldened by Trump’s visceral hostility towards Iran and his resolve to withdraw from the nuclear agreement.
But, what really drives the relationship is their shared perception that the US, even under Trump, is not a reliable partner in support of their interests. Beyond presidential rhetoric, they know that US is not keen to expand its military role in West Asia, its influence in the region has waned, and its policies, marked by frequent public differences between the White House and the security officials, seem to be adrift. They see no option but to work closely with each other to challenge Iran.
Saudi Arabia has specific concerns of its own. The crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman is involved in a series of regional confrontations – in Yemen, Syria, Qatar – that show little signs of a successful outcome. As the competition with Iran gets sharper, it has become necessary for the prince to strengthen ties with Israel to achieve a new regional balance of power.
There has been considerable progress of bilateral ties over the last two years, of which only few glimpses are in the public domain. General Amos Gilad of the Israeli defence ministry has described state of his country’s ties with selected countries in the region as “the best period of security and diplomatic relations with the Arabs”. Israel’s chief of staff, General Gadi Eisenkot told a Saudi paper based in London that Israel was ready to exchange intelligence with the kingdom to confront Iran.
In this background of mutual interest and camaraderie, there is no place for the Palestine issue in the calculus of either country. In mid-November last year, the Israeli media reported that the Saudi crown prince had summoned Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh a few days earlier when he was told to “accept Trump’s peace plan or quit”. The prince also conveyed his dismay at Hamas’ links with Iran and demanded all Palestinian ties with Iran and Hezbollah be terminated.
The Saudi approval for use of its air space for flights between Israel and India, reported in early February, which will also facilitate Israel’s air links with Northeast and Southeast Asia, is the most recent indication of expanding good will between Israel and the Saudi kingdom.
The Syrian imbroglio
Syria is the theatre where this new friendship will be tested. All the principal regional and extra-regional players are directly involved in this conflict zone. Now, as the fighting de-escalates, these players are staking their interests for the post-conflict scenario, which promises to be as contentious as the battles have been so far.
The Assad regime, backed militarily by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, has clearly come out on top and there no prospect of it being displaced by hostile elements, domestic or regional. Iran and Hezbollah now seem to be seeking a permanent military presence for themselves in Syria to safeguard Iran’s strategic interests in West Asia.
Syria is using its clout to attack US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to take the town of Deir ez Zour at the Iraq border, while Turkish forces have entered Syria to fight expanding Kurdish presence at its border. Russia has moved beyond its initial military role and is keen to be accepted as the influential big power presence and regional arbiter and peace-maker. Here Russia will need to work closely with Saudi Arabia, which is backing some important opposition groups.
Israel has been regularly intervening in the Syrian conflict by bombing assets of the Assad government. Now, it has to accept that Assad will remain in place, bringing with it the prospect of Iran and Hezbollah stationed permanently at its borders. This has put Israel and Iran on a collision course.
On 10 February, following the downing of an Iranian drone in Israel, the latter launched an air attack on Iranian and Syrian facilities, in which one of its aircraft was brought down. This was the first loss of an Israeli plane in combat since 2006 and led to a massive air attack on Syria. As of now, both Iran and Israel appear to be asserting uncompromising positions in regard to their interests in Syria and it is not clear how the situation will be diffused. West Asia is poised at the edge of a region-wide conflict.
Implications for India
India’s position on Palestine has been clearly influenced by the prevailing ground realities. In any case, whatever words India might adopt, the factual situation is that it will make no difference to addressing the problem. As of now, neither the Israelis, the Palestinians nor the US or the UN, have any capacity to resolve the issue: the differences are much too deep, and no party is capable of accepting compromises.
In Syria, too, India can play no useful role, whatever concerns it might have about the escalation of conflict. Here, the lead role is that of Russia, possibly in association with the US. However, these two major powers themselves seem to be engaged in a competition for regional influence; hence, it seems unlikely they will be able to persuade their regional proteges to adopt moderate positions.
Where India might perhaps be more effective is nearer home, in the Gulf. Here, the Saudi-Iran divide, emerging on the Saudi side from perceptions of expanding Iranian regional influence and its possible intrusive role in regional politics, is at the heart of regional conflicts that are being shaped by sectarian considerations. The two countries are already engaged in proxy conflicts, in Syria and Yemen, and the prospect of a direct conflict between them cannot be ruled out. Bridging the gap between these two Islamic giants by promoting mutual confidence as a prelude to direct discussions between them should form part of an India-led initiative.
Once an Indian initiative is agreed to in principle in New Delhi, several approaches are available in terms of the content and approach and the partners India could co-opt to support its effort. An excellent associate would be the UAE: both countries share concerns relating to the regional security scenario and are pledged to addressing regional security challenges unitedly.
The joint statement issued after Modi’s recent visit to the UAE expresses the commitment of the two leaders “to augment [their] cooperation further to promote regional security, peace and prosperity”. Promotion of stability in West Asia would be the most important outcome of Prime Minister Modi’s robust engagement with the region over the last three years.
(The author, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune. The views are personal)