Thursday, November 29, 2007

India and Annapolis

Ready to mediate at Annapolis?

New Indian Express, Friday November 30, 2007
EVEN the most optimistic in Washington do not visualise any major breakthrough at Annapolis but by organising the biggest game in town for over seven years, the Bush Administration does not wish to exclude anyone.
While widespread participation might not result in a fruitful outcome, exclusion would undoubtedly have ruffled many feathers and hurt egos. Like a major wedding in town, anyone who matters was invited to the Annapolis Middle East peace conference. So was India.
While the presence of Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee might have provided an opportunity for India to interact with other leaders, it would have created unnecessary expectations.
Non-political representation would have made its presence symbolic and insignificant. Through Science Minister Kapil Sibal, who in recent months has emerged as the main, if not sole defender of the nuclear deal in public, the government also sends a subtle message to Washington on the bilateral front.
Some might conclude the invitation to be a sign of recognition of the Indian diversity and even as a “role model” for a lasting peace in the region. Washington has no such illusions.
During much of his tenure President George W Bush avoided the vexed Arab-Israeli conflict like a plague. It was growing anti-Americanism more than anything else that appeared to have catapulted him to act. So with less than a year before leaving the White House, the administration has invested considerable effort and political capital in organising the largest Middle East gathering since the Madrid conference of 1991.
Partly to answer his critics for his unilateralism, President Bush opted to make Annapolis as wide as possible and managed to rope in all major players in the Middle East and beyond. With the notable exception of Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip and Iran, the Administration secured the participation of all major powers, key Middle Eastern players and important regional powers, groups and institutions. The two radicals excluded themselves by opting out of the peace process and not because the US did not want them at Annapolis.
As some western and other leaders discovered in recent months, doing Washington’s bidding is a political liability. Hence the willingness of Syria to attend the event was a diplomatic coup and so was the reluctant attendance of Saudi Foreign Minister.
That most of the countries were represented by their Foreign Ministers was no mean achievement, especially for an Administration that has been vilified for months over its Middle East policy.
The conference also enabled the US to reach out its rivals, recognise regional importance of others and convey “Not-forgotten-you” thank you note to some. While the presence of many countries adds to the prestige and importance of the conference, the US knows that only the two principal parties and not others who could make that leap. Thus while the absence of key players would definitely sabotage the efforts, the presence of so many countries will not by itself make the settlement any closer.
Thus, one should not read too much into India’s presence at Annapolis. Its exclusion on the contrary, might have been viewed as a sign of American displeasure over India backtracking on the nuclear front or worse a pressure tactic. Especially with Pakistan also being there, Indian exclusion would be controversial. By inviting Delhi to Annapolis, the administration reiterates its willingness to recognise India's role in a major international event.
Annapolis also highlights changing times for India. Following normalisation of relations with Israel in 1992, India was supportive of various peace initiatives and in the early 1990s took part in the multilateral arms control talks. But its overall presence was marginal. Not having normal relations with the Jewish State for over four decades, its ability to influence the peace process was less than zero.
During a decade and half, as the bilateral relations improved, it had acquired considerable political capital and economic leverage vis-à-vis Israel.
The manner in which both Congress and non-Congress governments handled the relations exhibit a degree of self-confidence and maturity. It is no longer uneasy let alone apologetic about its friendship with Israel.
Except for occasional jarring notes from Cairo, much of the Middle East have come to terms with India’s willingness to pursue closer ties with Israel, including strong military-security cooperation. Reflecting this even mainstream Palestinian leadership sings a different tune: will New Delhi use its leverage vis-à-vis Israel to further the peace process? Handled tactfully, Annapolis offers India the opportunity to recognise the nuanced and complex demands of a peace maker. Even if success remains elusive and even impossible, like others, India would have to strive for peace in the Middle East. Regional stability serves India’s larger interest, welfare and security.
To be taken seriously, however, India has to drop its blinkers. First and foremost, India should not have illusions about its role in Annapolis or beyond. New Delhi can’t dream of achieving what the US, with all its powers and influence, could not bring about: a comprehensive settlement. Nor should it kid itself into believing or propagating it as a model for others. Just like other models did not work for India, its model won’t work for others.
Thankfully, so far none asked India to be a model. Second, to be a credible player in the Middle East peace process, India would have to be more careful in expressing its views. This was highlighted during the second Lebanese war in the summer of last year. In the initial days, it adopted a balanced position and like much of the Arab world blamed the Hezbollah for kidnapping Israeli soldiers that precipitated the crisis.
Subsequently when the mood in the Middle East swung in favour of the militant group, India joined others in condemning Israel for attacking civilian population and infrastructure in Lebanon. The Indian parliament went on to adopt a onesided resolution that was silent on Hezbollah rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.
While this was perhaps unavoidable due to public pressures from the Left parties, Indian officials went a step further. When the post-ceasefire mediation efforts were on, Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to the region pointedly skipped Israel, whose role was central to the stability along the Israel-Lebanese border. While public criticisms might shore up some domestic support and garner some publicity abroad, they undermine India’s ability to play a meaningful role in the peace process.
New Delhi might conclude that airing strong views in public is more important than mediating the conflict. But if it wants a seat in the hightable, it would have to learn the art of silence. As Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told parliament during the Czech crisis, when you are in front of avalanches, even slight murmurs will unleash tons of ice.
Mediating the Middle East is not about rights and wrongs but the art of winning over enemies and influencing friends. If Sibal and his team recognise this, Indian presence in Annapolis would have been a worthwhile exercise.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Islam and Minorities

In Islam and Minorities (Mediterranean Quarterly, summer 2007) I argue that Dhimmi, the only framework available in Islam, is inadequate to treat not only non-Islamic communities but also sects within Islam. If interested you can find the full text at:

Friday, August 24, 2007

India's Nucler Summer

India's woeful mishandling of negotiations over the 123 Agreement leave some to wonder about the government's ability to manage itself on the international stage.

Commentary for ISN Security Watch (24/08/07)

"Running around like headless chickens."

This was how India's ambassador in Washington, Ronen Sen, described the domestic critics of India's nuclear deal with the US. This tasteless remark believed to be directed at Indian lawmakers might eventually cost him his job. Unfortunately, for him and the Indian government, the critics are growing by the day.

From the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the right to the communist parties on the left, a host of groups question the just-concluded agreement, commonly referred to as the 123 Agreement. Many argue that by including domestic US nonproliferation laws into the work, India has "surrendered" its sovereignty. While parliamentary ratification is not mandatory, should the deal be put to vote, the government would be shown the door.

If the BJP is the open adversary, the left parties have been a doubtful ally ever since Manmohan Singh became prime minister following the May 2004 elections. The left also demands that that the government not negotiate a safeguards agreement with the IAEA toward implementing the Indo-US nuclear deal. Without such an agreement, India would not be able to convince the powerful Nuclear Suppliers Groups (NSG) to accept the Indo-US deal and operationalize it. With internal “friends” like the left, Manmohan Singh does not need external enemies.

The problem however, is largely India's own making. From the very beginning, New Delhi did not factor in Washington's expectations while pursuing the nuclear deal. It never recognized let alone internalized US baggage vis-à-vis Iran. Even the Iran Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 (ILSA) was not taken into account when India started its energy strategy toward Iran.

The Indian leaders pretended that they could obtain energy supplies from Iran and civilian nuclear technology from the US without squaring the circle. They failed to recognize India's non-parallel interests with the US over Iran.

This ignorance proved to be costly. Having talked of "civilizational links" with that country, India voted against Iran at the IAEA in September 2005 and again in 2006 to refer the Iran file to the UN Security Council. The manner in which India handled and justified its vote gave an unmistakable impression that New Delhi acted under US pressures, if not dictates.

This lack of clarity and foresight is not the prerogative of the present government alone, but has become a bipartisan national disease. When it was in office, the BJP was more than eager to send troops to Iraq to shore up beleaguered US President George W Bush. It eventually backed out when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee recognized opposition from his own collation partners.

For its part, the left in India is more Maoist than the Chinese. It is blissfully happy to live under a nuclear China but could not accept India going nuclear in 1998. Some also fault the government for not joining hands with Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), increasingly seen as a counterweight to NATO.

As it stands, a vast majority of the lawmakers, especially the communist allies whose support is essential for the survival of the government, are unlikely to accept the nuclear deal. At the same time, the Indian government would not be able renegotiate the deal with the US without losing its credibility. The international community, especially the NSG, would be reluctant to deal with such a sensitive issue when Indian government looks to be on its way out.

Ever since the nuclear deal was initialed in July 2005, Indian officials naively hoped that the US would bring about far-reaching changes in its domestic nonproliferation laws, silence the nuclear ayatollahs, convince other countries to accept the deal and work with key players like China not to oppose the deal at the NSG. The Bush administration would take these far-reaching steps, New Delhi hoped, while it was not prepared to accommodate American concerns over the nuclear stand off with Iran.

Had India read US expectations early and clearly, it would have approached the nuclear deal more carefully and avoided the minefield. It would have understood the political price and prepared the domestic public accordingly. Even if India was not prepared to go all the way, it could have evolved reasonable redlines on the Iran front and convinced the domestic as well as US public. This however, did not happen and as it was forced to recognize, there are no free lunches in Washington.

The manner in which Indian leaders handled the Indo-US nuclear deal pose a fundamental challenge: Are they capable of making a cost-benefit analysis of India's national interest and to convince domestic skeptics before seeking international recognition and cooperation?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

India's nuclear dance over Iran

The full text of India's Nuke Dance over Iran published in August 2007 issue of Strategic Insights (Monterey, CA) is available at:

Friday, August 3, 2007

Indo-Israel defense ties

Indo-Israeli military ties enter next stage

A US$2.5 billion Indo-Israeli defense project marks a new phase in the two countries' relations.
Commentary by P R Kumaraswamy for ISN Security Watch (03/08/07)
India's recent decision to develop jointly a new generation of surface-to-air missile with Israel is a quantum leap in the two countries' relations.

In early July, India's Cabinet Committee on Security chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh approved the US$2.5 billion defense project with Israel. The development of missiles capable of intercepting aircraft and other aerial targets at a range of 70 kilometers to be undertaken by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Israel Aerospace Industries.
This is not only the largest single deal involving Israel but also marks a new phase in defense-related cooperation between the two countries.

Ever since diplomatic relations were established in January 1992, both countries have actively cooperated in the defense arena, with India obtaining a large number of small arms, weapons, avionics, ship-launched Barak missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles from Israel.

Counter-terrorism and border management techniques figure prominently in these regular deliberations.

Within the next few weeks, India will launch the first Israeli satellite, and there is speculation in the Indian media that it will be a spy satellite.

In recent years, service chiefs and other senior military officials have been periodically visiting one another. In May this year, the Indian Defense Minister informed the parliament that from 2002-2007, India obtained over US$5 billion worth of military weapons and systems from Israel. Others suggest that in 2006 alone India's defense imports from Israel stood at US$1.6 billion.

The bourgeoning Indo-Israeli military ties are helped by favorable winds from Washington: its endorsement for the Israeli sale of Phalcon airborne early warning systems to India was a case in point. This deal estimated at over US$1 billion dollars came against the background of the US vetoing similar sale to China.

The new decision on missile development conveys a number of strong messages. Until now, Indo-Israeli military ties have largely been a cash-and-carry affair. India's desire to modernize its aging Soviet-made weapons and defense systems were made possible by Israeli expertise in upgrading and avionics. Though important, this approach has its limitations, especially when Israel does not develop major platforms that India requires for defense modernization.

Since normalization, there were suggestions that meaningful long-term cooperation would demand greater synergy between the two defense establishments. A number of on-going programs in India are not radically differently from their Israeli counterparts. These include plans to develop light combat aircraft, main battle tanks, missiles such as Prithvi and Agni, unmanned aerial vehicles and early warning radar systems. The joint missile research therefore signals that both countries are confident about moving beyond traditional arms sales and onto the next stage.

The timing of the decision is equally important. Ever since Manmohan Singh became India's prime minister in May 2004, the left-leaning parties have been demanding an end to military cooperation with Israel. Though they are not formally part of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), their support is vital for the survival of Singh's government.

In recent years, the communist parties have been critical of India moving closer to Israel. For them, seeking "strategic ties" with Israel represented a betrayal of the Palestinians and were harmful to India's interests. They even argued that closer military ties were the result of the "anti-Muslim agenda" of Israel and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Shortly after the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, they demanded the recall of India's ambassador from Tel Aviv.

When Singh became prime minister, "a course correction" in New Delhi's Israel policy became a major foreign policy agenda for the Left. For them, military cooperation with Israel when the latter was brutally subjugating the Palestinians would make India a party to Israel's crimes.

Singh, who was leaning to the left on various domestic issues, could approve such a massive joint military research with Israel but it would also have to be considered within the domestic context. Partly to dispel apprehensions of the Left and silence the critics, a few days after the missile cooperation was approved on 23 July, Indian Defense Minister A K Antony told the media, "Successive governments since 1992 have had defense ties with Israel. This is not new. And the relation is not ideological, but purely based on our security requirements."

The decision indicates a growing Indian confidence vis-à-vis Israel. In the past, India was extremely apprehensive of any public display of friendship with Israel. By seeking greater military cooperation with Israel, New Delhi signals greater self-confidence and indicates that it does not anticipate any problems with Arab and Islamic countries over such relations.

New Delhi has not allowed its differences over the Palestinian issue to undermine its defense ties with Israel. For a while, there were suggestions that New Delhi would become the second most important partner for Israel after Washington. With its troubled relations with Europe, Israel is increasingly looking to other players like India for long-term relations. Seen in this larger context, the missile deal not only marks a synergy between the two defense establishments but also has all the ingredients of a strategic partnership.

Web link:

Friday, July 27, 2007

Indo-Israel ties despite the Left

India cozying up to Israel
New Indian Express (Chennai), Friday July 27 2007

As the CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechury was promising his party’s unwavering commitment to the Palestinians, the Government of India was singing a different song. He was attending the 25th Congress of the Israeli Communist Party (Hadash), in the Israeli town of Nazareth and the event also coincided with the 40th anniversary of the June 1967 war which resulted in the Israeli capture of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In his subsequent report to the party weekly People’s Democracy, Yechury described his visit to 'Palestinian territories’ even though Nazareth is an Israeli town. The Israel part of his trip apparently was treated as ‘private’ and even those sections of media which are friendly to him choose to remain visibly silent.
Reasons are not difficult to fathom. In the summer of 2000 veteran Communist leader and the then Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu went to Israel as part of his last foreign trip before demitting office. Coming against the background of prolonged opposition and reservations over the normalisation of relations with Israel, this was seen as a political coup. While many Central and State leaders had visited Israel since relations were established in January 1992, the visit of Basu symbolised the broad consensus towards normalisation. It was seen by many that despite reservations about Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, there was widespread agreement on improving the bilateral ties.
The outbreak of al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, however, complicated the matters and bilateral ties came under stress, especially in the public domain. Meanwhile, the visit of Basu was used by critics on the far Left to question the pro-Palestinian credentials of the CPM. Yechury therefore, does not wish to create another controversy over his ‘visit’ to Israel, even if it was to attend events organised by the Israeli Communist Party. However, the Left faces a far more serious challenge over India’s Israel policy. For the past few years various Left parties including the CPM have been demanding India to reverse its policy.
The BJP’s moving India closer to Israel and its rolling out a red-carpet welcome to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in September 2003 came under severe criticism, condemnation and protests. When Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, a visible change in India’s policy towards Israel was one of their principle demands vis-a-vis the UPA. Largely due to pressures from the Left the Common Minimum Programme of the ruling coalition spoke of India’s 'decades-old commitment to the cause of the Palestinian people for a homeland of their own.’Soon after UPA came to power Prakash Karat reiterated his party’s demand that India should end its ‘special relationship’ with Israel.
In April 2005 during the 18th Congress of the CPM West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattcharjee moved a resolution that condemned Israel for its ‘‘brutal occupation’’ of Palestinian territories and demanded that India should snap all military ties with Israel. At periodic intervals various leaders of the Indian Left have been demanding a departure from the policies of the previous NDA government vis-a-vis Israel.
The response of the UPA government has been entirely different. Wherever possible it was accommodative of the Left even on Israel. In 2005, speaking at the UN, as part of the Indian delegation Yechury underscored the basic Indian objections to the security fence/wall that Israel has been constructing. According to him, ‘‘As we have stated in the past, no one could have objections to the construction of the wall in areas coinciding with the green line. However, its encroachment on Palestinian land and interests creates great hardship for the people affected by its construction and exacerbates the situation.’
Likewise, during the Lebanese war in the summer of last year, India was initially critical of the Hezbollah and demanded the unconditionl release of two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping precipitated the crisis. In subsequent days, partly due to pressures from the Left, the UPA modified its stand. The unanimous resolution adopted by the Lok Sabha on July 31 was highly critical of Israel and its attacks on the Lebanese civilians and infrastructures. It was, however, silent on the Hezbollah rocket attacks against Israeli civilian population. However, on the more substantial issue of military cooperation, Manmohan Singh could not accommodate the Left.
On May 16, Defence Minister A K Antony informed the Rajya Sabha that defence ’’purchases from Israel during the period 2002-2007 have been over US$ 5 billion.‘‘ Ingenious ones could argue that much of the contracts were signed during the previous NDA government and were delivered during the past three years of the UPA rule. However, this was the first time that India has put an official number to the defence acquisitions from Israel.
Any doubts about the reluctance of the present government to deal seek military ties with Israel were dispelled by the Cabinet Committee on Security. On July 12, chaired by the Prime Minister the supreme decision making body cleared a Rs 10,000 crores (US $ 2.5 billion) joint venture with Israel on a new generation of missiles capable of striking at aircraft and other aerial targets. This marks a new beginning in Indo-Israeli military cooperation. From its erstwhile cash-and-carry-approach, both countries are now entering a new phase of joint research and development. Last summer what would have been the first visit of a Defence Minister to Israel was cancelled due to the Lebanese war.
In short, the Indian defence establishment not only rejected the demands of the Left to distance itself from Israel but also took additional steps to consolidate and strengthen defence cooperation with Israel. In the past such decisions could have been blamed on the Hindutva factor and the desire of the BJP to bring India closer to the Jewish State. Unfortunately for the Left, it is the UPA, especially the Congress party, which is bringing India closer to the Israeli defence establishment.
In 1992 it was Congress leader P V Narasimha Rao who normalised relations with Israel and 15 years later, it was another Congress Prime Minister who endorsed joint defence research with Israel. These developments highlight the limitations of the Left in influencing India’s Israel policy. At the same time, they also highlight that blinded by ideology, these parties are not able to see bigger picture clearly. Their stand is not only at variance with the Indian Government but also with the wider Middle East. As one Palestinian official told the Indian media in April 2005, "’We are not asking our friends to cut relations with Israel. What is important for us is the full support of India towards peace, towards the legality, towards the international resolution of the Palestine dispute.”
Web link:

Friday, June 22, 2007

Have Palestinians failed Palestine?

New Indian Express (Chennai), Friday June 22 2007

Two-State solution! The events of the past week in the Gaza Strip have given an ominous meaning to this expression. While the international community wishes the early establishment of Palestinian state that co-exists along with Israel, the failure of the Palestinian unity government opened the prospect of two Palestinian entities competing for power, legitimacy and loyalty. Family feud, power struggle, coup, civil war, anarchy or a point of no return?

It is immaterial how one characterises the violence in recent days and the complete overrun of the Gaza Strip by Hamas. It is obvious that the militant Islamic group is in complete control of the streets and has achieved a resemblance of normalcy in the Gaza Strip. Confined to their homes and shanty refugee camps for days, ordinary Palestinians are now able to move out freely without fearing about masked gunmen roaming in open jeeps or gunfights in the alley ways.

Important as it may, this temporary quietness would not hide deep divisions within the Palestinian society and among its leadership. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responded to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip by dissolving the national unity government and sworn in an emergency government with former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad as the new Prime Minister.

Hamas for its part is not ready to accept this and insists that Ismail Haniya still heads the Palestinian government. In short, there is a Fatah Prime Minister for the West Bank and a Hamas Prime Minister for the Gaza Strip. Not surprisingly both insist that they are the true representatives of all the Palestinians!

Rival power centres are not unique to Palestinians and many countries in the Middle East went through an intense struggle for power that often resulted in violent change of rulers. But as a people whose aspirations for statehood and sovereignty is yet to be realised, the factional fighting and violence is a costlier mistake. It would be extremely difficult for both Hamas and Fatah to forget the events of recent weeks and co-operate. At least in the short run, Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) are the major losers. That an organised group like Fatah could swiftly be overrun, overpowered and even made to flee from the Gaza Strip tells not only the military weakness of Fatah but also the growing strength of Hamas.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a complete military victory over Fatah was something Israel had always wanted but never managed to inflict. That Hamas could achieve this in a matter of weeks should be an eye opener for Fatah and the PLO.

It is obvious that Fatah has never recovered from the death of its founder-chairman Yasser Arafat in November 2004. The crushing electoral defeat at the hands of Hamas in January 2006 came as an additional blow. Even though it was cajoled into joining a unity government with Hamas, neither side were ready to work in harmony. Hamas also mishandled the situation. Its resounding electoral victory in 2006 was not only a vote against Fatah and its corrupt leadership but also a mandate for change.

Change not in the ideological sense of the word but in the socio-political situation of the occupied territories. Hamas which tasted victory however, did not recognise that power comes with responsibility. It wanted the international community, especially the West and the US, to recognise the 'will of the people' and recognise and negotiate with the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

But at the same time, it was not ready to transform itself as a political party that is prepared to seek political solution to the prolonged Arab-Israeli problem. Its desire for retaining its ideological purity meant that Hamas would not formally recognise the State of Israel, its adversary or seek a political settlement with it. While 'allowing' President Abbas to pursue peace negotiations, Hamas was not ready to go beyond offering 'temporary truce' with Israel.

By refusing to recognise and negotiate with Israel, Hamas exhibited its failure to make that critical transition: from being a militant group into a mainstream political party. By this mistake Hamas played into the hands of Israel and the US. Capitalising on its non-recognition of the Israel, they were able to institutionalise an international political as well as financial boycott of the Hamas-led government. Even the European Union leaders who are otherwise friendlier towards the Palestinians than their American counterparts could not wholeheartedly embrace the Hamasled arrangement. The formation of the fragile unity government did not mollify their stand.

Indeed, since the January 2006 elections, domestic tensions and rivalry have become the prime pre-occupation for the Palestinians. Arab leaders such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah Saudi Arabia have been busy brokering deals not between the Palestinians and Israel but between rival Palestinian factions. Seeking a working compromise between Hamas and Fatah became more insurmountable than the Israeli- Palestinian compromise. Each ceasefire arrangement broke down faster than the earlier one. Indeed, till the other day Egypt had a permanent security presence in the Gaza Strip should speak volumes of the tension between rival Palestinian factions.

The much-hyped unity agreement reached in the Islamic holy city of Mecca last March failed to bridge the gap. Ironically the current situation of two separate arrangements might offer a temporary space for both factions to re-evaluate their recent behaviour. The international community has swiftly rallied behind President Abbas and his emergency government. If Israel had expressed its willingness to de-freeze the money that it owes to the Palestinians, the US has renewed its aid to the non-Hamas Palestinian government.

The EU and others would follow the same example, while at the same time continuing with their humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Not even Israel wants a meltdown at its doorstep. But in the long run, Hamas and Fatah would have to come together and seek unity. Their problem is with Israel and not with one another. If there has to be one Palestinian rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, then there has to one government and one authority. The past few months clearly revealed that leadership of both Hamas and Fatah are consumed by internal differences and hatred. Hence, a Palestinian unity could be arranged only by the international community. This is easier said than done.

Some desperate Palestinians were quoted as saying, 'Even Israelis did not do this to us.' Such a view could be an exaggeration. But the world has watched the scenes of masked men pulling down the portraits of Arafat, Mr. Palestine for decades. This would inhibit the international community from getting into inter-Palestinian mediation anytime soon.

Web link:

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Al Aqsa controversy

Al-Aqsa: A dangerous preoccupation

Islamic leaders should make some effort to depoliticize the controversy over the repair of a collapsed walkway to the al-Aqsa mosque.

Originally published in ISN Security Watch, 14 February 2007

What should be a routine repair of a collapsed walkway has exacerbated an already tense situation in the Middle East and raised international condemnation. Even though the work is taking place well outside the perimeter wall of the al-Aqsa mosque, Israel has been accused of "desecrating" an Islamic holy site. It has also been accused of attempting to consolidate its control over the third holiest place in Islam.
Israeli officials say that the walkway is in dire need of repairs after its partial collapse three years ago. Opponents of the refurbishing say that the work could damage the area's foundation. With the tension between both sides increasing, one may ask if any Islamic leaders have offered to de-politicize the matter and even offer technical assistance in repairing the bridge? It is safe to say that since the al-Aqsa mosque is one of their holiest sites, Islamic leaders should applaud any effort to keep the centuries-old building from falling into disrepair.

The reasons have to be found in the contested religious space in the city of Jerusalem. If one includes the Holy Sepulcher nearby, the walled city in east Jerusalem comprises some of the holiest sites to three monotheist religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Known to the Jews as Har-ha-Bayit or The Temple Mount, the Harem al-Sharif stands upon what is believed to be the ruins of the First and the Second Jewish Temples. The Western Wall, sometimes known as Wailing Wall, on the southern end of the complex is the only remaining structure of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

For Christians, the area is sacred because of the Holy Sepulcher, the place where Jesus Christ is said to have been resurrected.

For Muslims, Harem al Sharif, which includes the al-Aqsa mosque, is where Mohammed ascended to heaven.

In short, Old Jerusalem, has been intrinsically linked to the three major religions.

Due to a host of political developments, the religious significance and composition of the city has been changing since the 6th century. The city was captured by the armies of second caliph Umer around 637 shortly after the death of Prophet Mohammed. It was during the early years of Islam that the al-Aqsa mosque was built.

With the brief exception of the Crusades, Jerusalem remained under Islamic control until the entry of British forces led by General Edmund Allenby in December 1917. While the Jews were always allowed to pray, Harem al-Sharif always remained under strict the Islamic Waqf trust and control.

This political and religious control of the area became a major issue during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which ended with East Jerusalem, including the Harem-al-Sharif area, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher coming under the Jordanian control. During this period, the Hashemite Kingdom not only destroyed a number of ancient Jewish holy sites in the old city but also prevented even non-Israeli Jewish worshippers from praying near the Western Wall.

This situation changed following the Israeli capture of the West Bank including east Jerusalem during the June 1967 war. This in practical terms meant that for the first time in over 13 centuries, Harem al-Sharif, including the Western Wall came under non-Muslim Jewish control. While granting freedom of access to all, including Muslim worshippers, since the outbreak of the Intifada in 1987, Israel has been periodically restricted access to the al-Aqsa mosque.

Over the centuries, Christianity has abandoned its political claims over the city. This has not been the case with Judaism and Islam. The formation of the Jewish state posed a fundamental challenge to Islam. The Jews, who were tolerated as protected "people of the book" had become independent and asserted their sovereignty and in 1967 took control over an Islamic site. Jews were no longer a protected people but a sovereign subject.

Theologically, Islam has been unable to handle such an unprecedented development. Thus, while other countries have been focusing their attention on the legality of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, Islamic countries have been preoccupied with the non-Islamic control over the Harem.

Because of their close geographic proximity, even Israeli control over the Western Wall is not recognized by them. A vast majority of Muslims do not even admit that the Harem al-Sharif, including the al-Aqsa mosque, stand upon the ruins of the pre-Islamic Jewish temple.

As long as Islam and Judaism fail to come to terms with each other's claims over holy sites in Jerusalem, even smaller issues will continue to snowball into major political controversies invoking passionate attention and emotional responses from Muslims and Jews alike.

This contested religious significance makes the city of Jerusalem and its holy sites one of the most controversial and explosive place on this planet.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

China and Russia abandons Iran

China, Russia on road to abandoning Iran

ISN Security Watch 10 January 2007 China and Russia have agreed to UNSC Resolution 1737. Though watered down, it still sends a strong signal to Iran that its friends are not completely against joining hands with Western "devils."

Originally published in ISN Security Watch (10/01/07)

The unanimous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1737 clearly puts Iran on the dock. Outwardly, it merely seeks to restrict Iran’s ability to trade in sensitive nuclear materials and to freeze the assets of 22 Iranian officials and institutions linked to its nuclear and missile programs. However, the willingness of friendly countries such as China and Russia to abandon their erstwhile hesitancy and endorse limited sanctions against Iran should be seen as a small but decisive victory for the beleaguered Bush administration.

The vote should also be an eye opener for those who have periodically stressed and hoped that China would adopt an independent policy vis-à-vis the US on Iran. While not ready to join the Western chorus against Tehran, Beijing is also not willing to embrace the ayatollahs’ nuclear ambitions.

For quite some time, it was clear that China was not prepared to accept a nuclear Iran. Its refusal to endorse US demands for punitive sanctions was coupled by its determination that Iran should peacefully resolve its dispute with the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Partly due to its past involvement in missile and nuclear proliferation, Beijing has been extremely weary of another nuclear power in its neighborhood.

Likewise, the vote also underscored the fundamental priority of Chinese foreign policy. Its desire to adopt assertive foreign policy postures on issues such as Taiwan are always accompanied by its deep desire to maintain close political ties with Washington. This shift on Iran was clearly manifested at the IAEA. While it abstained in September 2004, it voted with the majority in February 2006. The shift clearly indicated that China was merely seeking adequate price and compensation for its accommodation of Western concerns over Iran.

Western willingness to settle for a watered-down resolution that lacks any real teeth also underscores Washington’s desire for an international consensus on Iran. Any tougher wording of the resolution could have resulted in China and Russia abstaining if not vetoing such a move. The US would rather have an international consensus against Iran than drive for a tougher resolution that might be seen as a sign of ganging up against Tehran.

Despite the limited nature of sanctions, the resolution pits Iran against the rest of the international community. Even if the real impact is marginal, the vote signals Iran’s isolation. Not many countries even in the West endorsed Bush’s axis of evil theory against Iran. But now even friendlier powers like China and Russia have sided with the US in isolating Iran.

National interests also continue to play a primary role in the Iran issue. Both Russia and China have strong economic interests in Iran. The former is committed to the construction of a nuclear power plant near Bushehr, originally started by the German company Siemens in the 1970s. Literally days before the UNSC vote, Iranian media reported that the Bushehr plant was on schedule.

China sees Iran as a major and stable source of energy supplies. Its galloping economy and the resulting increase in demand for hydrocarbon compel Beijing to look for long-term arrangements. China is committed to developing the Yadavaran oil fields. In October 2004, both countries signed a memorandum of understanding for the supply of 250 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Iran over the next 25 years. It also includes the supply of 150,000 barrels of oil per day during the same period. The total deal is estimated at over US$120 billion.

In December, just days before the UNSC vote, the two countries signed another agreement for the supply of three million tons of LNG a year. This 25-year contract will begin with the flow of gas in 2011.

Such strong economic interests and investments in Iran prevent China from completely siding with the West. Any Chinese support to the West on Iran would thus have to be courted and compensated adequately.

At the same time, a number of countries in the Middle East are increasingly concerned about Iran and its defiant attitude toward the international community. The recent decision of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to seek the help and cooperation of the IAEA in developing nuclear energy and the ongoing debates in Egypt over the revival of nuclear power generation should be seen within this larger context. Iran is not just a threat to the West and its interests in the Middle East, but to an increasing number of Arab states.

As such, countries like China have to weigh their sympathies for Iran against their interests in the wider Arab world. As US officials declared, the limited sanctions are merely the first step toward more severe measures against Iran. So, when a friend like China abandons it, the ayatollahs in Iran get a shrill message: Comply or we will join hands with the “devil.”