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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