Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lanka's Israel Dilemma

Lanka's Israel Dilemma
South Asia Monitor, June 9, 2008
The high profiled visit of Prime Minister Rathnasiri Wickramanayaka to Israel in late March underscores the long-standing Sri Lankan dilemma towards the Jewish State. At one level, it wants to benefit from Israel's military and security expertise but strong domestic and regional compulsions drive Colombo in the opposite direction. The need to balance the two became apparent in Wickramanayaka's recent visit to the Middle East, which also took him to the Palestinian areas and Jordan.
In tune with the current policy regarding ethnic violence within his country, Wickramanayaka played up the terrorism card and drew a parallel between the Tamil Tigers and various other "terrorist groups such as PKK, Taliban, Islamic groups in the Philippines and even some affiliates of Al-Qaida." He even maintained that some of the Tamil militants are being trained "in Palestinian camps in Syria and Lebanon." He sought to please his hosts by harping on terrorism and suicide bombings that have caused havoc in the island republic.
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urged the visitor not to "give in to terrorism because it will only destroy your country ... It is forbidden to surrender to it." Despite such high public rhetoric, more than anyone else Olmert knows the inevitability seeking political settlement with militant groups.
It is fair to argue that Israeli military security assistance was high on Wickramanayaka's agenda. The importance of his visit was marked by the host of meetings he had in Israel and among others met President Shimon Peres, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. In a rare gesture he addressed the Jerusalem-based Israel Council on Foreign Relations.
A couple of recent developments provide an interesting backdrop to Wickramanayaka's visit. Of late Colombo has been upbeat about its military victories in the North and some even visualized a total collapse and annihilation of the Tamil Tigers. The mutual abandonment of the ceasefire merely increases the possibility of Colombo harping on the military option.
Furthermore, as part of this outlook, Colombo has been unsuccessfully seeking military assistance from New Delhi. The week-long visit to India of Commander of the Lankan Army Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka in March was part of that strategy.
New Delhi however, operates under different compulsions. The bitterness of the past and political compulsions of the present prevent it from entertaining such Lankan requests. As the refusal of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to attend the Independence Day celebrations in February highlighted, Sri Lanka continues to be a major issue in Tamil Nadu politics. With not many countries able and willing to help, Wickramanayaka's visit has to be viewed within the context of the ethnic conflict.
For Israel, this visit forms a part of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the State. By hosting leaders from different parts of the world during the yearlong celebrations, Israel is seeking to highlight and consolidate its growing international acceptance and recognition. The celebrations culminated on May 14 with a ceremony attended by US President George Bush and various other world leaders. More over Wickramanayaka was the highest Lankan official to visit Israel since 1948.
While Sri Lankan Prime Minister might not be a prize catch, Israel cannot hope to attract other leaders from South Asia. Ideally it would have liked to have hosted the Indian President or Prime Minister. Alternatively a high profile visit by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi would have been a diplomatic coup underscoring Israel's growing importance to India.
Unfortunately however, since normalization of relations in 1992, senior Indian leaders have been extremely wary of visiting Israel. Even when rolling out a red carpet welcome to President Ezer Weizman in December 1996 and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in September 2003, India avoided similar visits to Israel. If late President K R Narayanan was reluctant to visit Israel, the tenure of A P J Abdul Kalam was marred by the onset of al-Aqsa Intifada.
Kalam's personal preference became apparent when he went to Israel a few weeks ago to attend a scientific conference. Indeed, in his earlier avatar as scientific advisor to the Defence Minister, Kalam was in Israel in the mid-1990s. With Lok Sabha elections not far away, political visits to Israel could be an electoral liability for the UPA.
Leaders of the two Islamic countries of South Asia, namely, Pakistan and Bangladesh going to Israel is rather unrealistic. Nepal, a country with whom Israel has long standing relations, is too pre-occupied with its domestic problems to contemplate a state visit to Israel. The country's Foreign Minister Sahana Pradhan however, was in Israel last July.
Domestically not everyone was happy with Wickramanayaka's visit. The internal tensions within Lanka's Israel policy once again came into the open. Some have adversely commented about the idea of Israel being a "model" for Sri Lanka. Others drew favourable parallel with the Palestinians and their struggle against Israel. Indeed, just days before Wickramanayaka's visit, President Mahinda Rajapaksa meet a delegation from the Sri Lankan Committee for Solidarity with Palestine and assured them that "he would never visit Israel" though "his Prime Minister would be leading a delegation to that country shortly."
As a balancing tactics during the current visit the Lankan leader went to the Palestinian Areas and met President Mahmoud Abbas. The Lankan media also highlighted a street in Ramallah being named after its president underscoring his longstanding commitment to the Palestinian case. Any lingering doubts about Lanka's Israel policy were dispelled when Colombo hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the last week of April, soon after Wickramanayaka returned from Israel.
While military supplies and training facilities can't be ruled out, Israel is unlikely to get involved in ethnic conflict. The reason has to be located within the context of the traditional Sri Lankan policy vis-à-vis Israel.
In March 1949 Sri Lanka granted de facto recognition to Israel but choose to maintain a distance. In 1960, in an unexpected move, it withdrew its non-resident Minister to Israel even while allowing the latter to maintain its diplomatic mission in Colombo. In July 1970 keeping in tune with her electoral promise, Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike suspended diplomatic relations with Israel. This happened well before the 1973 oil crisis when a number of Third World countries broke off relations with Israel.
In the 1980s, at the height of the ethnic conflict, Colombo once again moved closer to Israel. Besides military supplies, it sought and obtained Israeli expertise in counter-terrorism. To facilitate the training of its armed forces, Colombo allowed an Israeli "interest section" within the US embassy. Refusal of other countries, especially India, to provide security assistance was explained as the reason for moving closer to Israel. According to former Foreign Secretary J N Dixit the Israeli presence played a pivotal role in India's involvement in Sri Lankan ethnic conflict. The military ties ended abruptly in 1990 and bi-lateral relations were once again established in 2000.
Thus by adopting a zigzag policy on Israel, over the years, Sri Lanka has eroded its credibility and hence, despite the media hype in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, Israel will be highly sceptical about moving closer to Colombo, especially on the military-security front.
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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Israel Diary

Dairy Israel
New Indian Express (Chennai), June 4, 2008.
The Jerusalem Take on Muslims

Two-day academic conferences on Asian studies would be smack of chutzpah in any country in the Middle East. But not Israel. In the third week of May, the Hebrew University which started functioning in 1925, hosted the Seventh and the largest academic conference on Asia. Devoted to cultural, religious, social and literary aspects of the content, it attracted over a hundred scholarly papers spread over more than two-dozen simultaneous sessions. The result was a mixed bag. Some provocative and some pedestrian.

Though most were in Hebrew, my rudimentary knowledge of the language was good enough to appreciate the big picture. Besides the discussions, I got an opportunity to meet a number of my old friends, former colleagues and intellectual fellow travellers. The Malayalam-fluent Ophira, Raquel who specialises in Japanese energy policy or Sofia who lives in Chinese classical poetry, all under one roof.
Uneasy Money
One scholar used the troubles facing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and speculation about him receiving hefty envelopes filled with dollar bills to add some lighter moments. The Chinese government was uneasy about its missiles supplied to Iran reaching Hezbollah that used them against Israel during the Second Lebanese war in 2006. During the recent visit of the Israeli Prime Minister Chinese officials highlighted Iran's end-user commitments but the speaker mischievously observed: "I don't know if Olmert was given envelopes by the Chinese."
A matter of Apparel
What to wear for the occasion? I was in a dilemma. I remembered an incident involving veteran Israeli diplomat Abba Eban. The Labour Party was still identified with the working class and party stalwarts and members were assembled in Tel Aviv to elect the list for the forthcoming Knesset election. Eban being an outsider could not be more pronounced. Only he came in a bow tie and failed to get his name in a realistic slot on the party list. He soon bowed out the politics.
So I settled for informal attire. Seeing me in T-shirt for my session, my old friend and Sinologist Professor Yitzhak Shichor recollected an anecdote. "The ambassador from Japan had just arrived and he was new to Israeli customs. For his first official function he went in formal suit, only to found that he was the only one in the entire crowd to be dressed formally. Not to repeat the same mistake, next time he went in informally. He was foxed again as the entire gathering was dressed formally. The ambassador gave up worrying about dressing for the occasion." Then Professor Shichor added, "We are a crazy people. When it comes to dress, anything goes…"
Indians Absent
Representatives from China, Japan and Korea were present during much of the deliberations and partly supported the conference. Seoul's ambassador to Israel Shin Kak-Soo broke off from the original schedule and did a mini presentation comparing the nuclear controversies surrounding North Korea and Iran. A notable absentee was the Indian embassy. With six panels devoted to various aspects of India's diversity, the absence was rather conspicuous and strange.
Notable exception
"Don't bother us with intellectual nonsense." This does not appear to be the attitude of the Israeli foreign office. A number of retired as well as serving diplomats could be noticed through the conference. An uncommon sight in India. They were hopping from one panel to the other but they were there. Some are soon returning to India's neighbourhood.
Sachar was there
The UPA government would be extremely happy that the Sachar Committee report is popular not just in India but also among Indologists in Israel. It figured prominently in the panel on Religion, Society and State in India. Though Israel is considered a favourite of the Hindutva brigade, the panelists used the report to highlight the marginalisation of Muslims. The Hindu right came in for some severe treatment. Some on the panel felt Muslims are not protected in India and that 'secularism' is also a sign of the Indian state appropriating the cultural traits of the Hindu majority. An academic from Ben-Gurion University recalled a remark by Syed Shahabuddin who reportedly said: "Muslims in India are like the Jews in Nazi Germany!" The remark did not go unnoticed in a country that remembers the Holocaust.
Sad old home
During the lunch break I took time off and went my old home: the library of the Harry S Truman Institute at the northern corner of the Hebrew University campus. Over looking the far off Dead See, its dilapidated present condition is exemplified by a lonely reader from Europe.
The once lively place hectic with readers, researchers and students is badly in need of a PR to exhibit its hidden treasures. When the University budget shrinks, the library often is the first casualty and Truman Library, which has some of the best collections on Asia in Israel, had seen better days before the late 1990s. I went there to meet my old friend Amnon. Most of my academic sharpness of the complex Arab-Israeli conflict occurred during my daily coffee seasons with him in the café in Frank Sinatra plaza. Amnon still remains cheerful but not the library. It needs a few scholars to utilise its wealth!