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.