Why not Palestine?

Why not Palestine?

Why hold a conference for Palestine in New Delhi, asks Aditi Bhaduri.

A Just Peace for Palestine was the title of a recently-concluded conference at the India International Centre in New Delhi, India. At a time when India is gripped by manifold internal problems – the threat from the Maoists, rising tensions in Kashmir and the fiasco over the Commonwealth games – it seems rather surprising to host a conference on Palestine. Externally too for many analysts there are far more pressing issues – a resurgent China's attempts to encircle India, war of words and tensions with Pakistan. So why Palestine?

The justification can be found in the fact that it was not an ad hoc decision but an event in the larger on going process of a campaign begun in India for the boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel to force it to comply with international law and bring about an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories, the oppression of Palestinian people and the establishment of a viable contiguous Palestinian state in West Asia. This is a campaign that has been kicked off by some academics and intellectuals only, but it is hoped that it will grow rapidly in the near future. There is also the hope that the government of India can be pressured to cease its growing strategic and defence ties with Israel. India is Israel's number one arms buyer, something that helps keeps the Isreali economy afloat. The attacks by Israeli forces on the Gaza flotilla carrying international aid to the besieged people in the strip in international waters further lent a sense of urgency to the conference.

Thus came together prominent academics, political leaders and activists from different parts of the world for a two-day conference in New Delhi on 'A Just Peace for Palestine'. The conference was jointly organised by the Committee for Solidarity with Palestine, the Palestine BDS National Committee, the Centre for Policy Analysis, the All India Peace and Solidarity Organisation, Focus on the Global South and other like-minded organisations. The leitmotif of all the speakers was that if a just peace because of Israeli intransigency continues to elude the region for much longer, all chances of a two-state solution would be buried, leading to a one-state demand which would dilute Isreal's Jewish character – something unacceptable to Israel. In fact some participants, such as Isreali academic Ilan Pappe, felt that a bi-national one-state solution was a more equitable solution than a two-state one due to the small size of the territory in question.

The first day of the conference had speakers such as Jamal Zahalka, an Arab Member of the Israeli Knesset; Ilan Pappe; former UN General Assembly president Father Miguel Brockmann; and UN Rapporteur for Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, Prof Richard Falk, who debated the genesis of the Palestinian crisis and focused on the situation of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Father Brockmann urged the international community to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end the occupation, while Falk called on India to play a greater role and raise its voice in the international community even as the country's geo-political significance increased. Professor Ijaz Ahmed said that only a just resolution of the Palestinian issue could bring lasting peace to the region and outlined India's gradual shift away from unwavering support to Palestinians to close military cooperation with Israel.

The second day focused on empire and the Asian response. Professor Achin Vanaik declared the US and Israel as part of the problem of militarisation of West Asia and Southasia, and said the US, which had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, will not help the region find a just solution to the Palestinian cause. Walden Bello said that while the US had implanted and helped keep undemocratic and oppressive regimes such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia in place, it insisted on human rights and democratisation in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Professor Lisa Taraki from Bir Zeit University in the West Bank introduced the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign initiated against Israel by Palestinian academics and intellectuals — a move which has found civil society support in some countries, including the US.

Later in the day, speakers from political parties, including Prakash Karat of the CPI (M), Mani Shankar Aiyer of the Congress Party, and A.P. Bardhan from the CPI critiqued India's growing military and defence ties with Israel and its waning support for the Palestinians, restricting itself to humanitarian aid only. They floated the idea of forming a Parliamentary committee for Palestine in the Indian Parliament and demanded that India cease its defence ties with Israel. Speakers from Palestine, including Palestine National Initiative founder-member Dr Mustafa Barghouti and activist Jamal Jummaa, spoke about expanding Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories and the BDS movement which they hoped people in India and the region would support.

Speakers from Bangladesh included trade union leader Rashed Menon and Communist Party of Bangladesh chairman Manzurul Khan, who reiterated Bangladesh's support and solidarity with the Palestinians and asked India to take the lead in the region to campaign for the rights of the people of Palestine.

The conference ended with a plan of action, in which several steps to show solidarity with Palestinians were outlined, and a resolution was signed, calling upon the Indian government to 'end its military ties with Israel and return to its earlier commitment to the cause of the Palestinian people'.

The conference has of course not been without critiques. While one commentator pointed out China's close and growing ties with Israel, others such as S. Samuel Rajiv of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, argued that the policy of boycotts or sanctions has 'little purchase in eliciting changes in domestic or foreign policy behaviour of nation states, especially so in West Asia'.

'Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein or present day Iran are pertinent examples,' he said. 'Both Tel Aviv and New Delhi should also aim to inform public opinion regarding their ongoing defence cooperation, rather than seek to perpetuate the "defence taboo".'

Interview with Achin Vanaik

At a recent conference in Delhi on A Just Peace for Palestine, Achin Vanaik castigated India's military and other ties with Israel and held the latter responsible for occupying Palestinian territories and the colonisation of the people of Palestine. In this interview with Aditi Bhaduri he talks about how the Israel-Palestine issue impacts peace and security in Southasia and what the regional response to the issue should be.

Can Southasia frame a unified response to the issue of Palestine?

No. This is not possible because the policy of the most powerful country in Southasia – India – is shaped by its strategic alliance with the US and its response cannot be the same as Pakistan, whose position, despite dependence on the US, is certainly different. At the same time, Bangladesh, which does not have a reason to align itself with the US, has a different position. In fact, at the recently-concluded conference on Palestine, speakers from Bangladesh expressed support for the people of Palestine. Public sentiment in Nepal can develop a position close to Bangladesh; it depends on the leadership. The Left in Nepal and India are certainly pro-Palestine.

Has the Palestine-Israel conflict impacted Southasia?

Yes, but the point is that it is impossible to speak of Southasia as a unit because of the uneven impact of the issue on the region. Except in the case of India, the US is the mediating factor in the Israel-Palestine issue in Southasian countries. Also, we need to situate it in the background of changes taking place in the world economy, characterised by neo-liberal globalisation, which in all its forms has unbalanced and welded together the elite in India, for instance, with Western elites and therefore led to changes in foreign policy which are much more accommodative of US interests in West Asia.

Moreover, independent of US to a great extent, Indo-Israel relations have taken a dramatic upturn. Israel is the number one arms supplier to India today and plays a crucial role in strengthening India-US relations. And do not forget that the Hindutvisation of Indian politics on the whole as compared to the past has also created greater sympathy in India's elite for Israel's Zionism.

In Pakistan, an important change has taken place. With the end of the Cold War is that Pakistan had a close relationship with one of the key pillars of US dominance in West Asia – Saudi Arabia – as something of a counter to Iran. After the US invasion of Iraq and its direct military implication in West Asia, however, the military role and significance of Pakistan vis-à-vis West Asia as a stabilising role for the US has become less important. So Pakistan's significance for the US vis-à-vis West Asia has declined but at the same time after the war in Afghanistan, its significance in Central Asia has increased, as here too the US has implanted itself militarily and politically.

It is also important to remember that in West and Central Asia, the US needs Muslim client states and regimes. Israel is very important for it in West Asia, of course, but the US sits on strategic tools such as Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. India's importance for the US is southwards and eastwards and in the containment of China. India is a behind-the-scenes auxiliary support for the US in West Asia.

How fair is it to blame India for its relations with Israel when many Arab and Muslim states such as Egypt and Jordan have established relations with Israel and many others such as Qatar and Tunisia actively cooperate with it?

This is an argument that Indian strategists use. They say that we are not doing anything which Arab states are not, giving them reason to maintain the current posturing. But this still represents a sharp break from India's policy in the past when, irrespective of what states were doing with Israel, India was firm in its support of the people of Palestine. For instance, Egypt established relations with Israel way back in 1979 but India did it only in 1992. So India's shift towards Israel is a shift to the right and towards its strategic shift towards the US. Regarding why India shouldn't pursue ties with Israel when other Arab countries do, it all depends on our vision for the world.

The Palestinian struggle is now the longest running national liberation movement in the world and India used to support such moral causes. As India becomes more powerful it sees itself as a sub-imperial power, even though it calls itself an emerging power. Hence, many of its elites think it has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of states such as Bhutan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and of course Nepal, which it does not have the right to.

Isn't China factored in here?

Yes, but who is India to tell China what to do? Which is not to say that Nepal should not be wary of Chinese influence, but China's influence in the country cannot be equated with Indian influence in Nepal, which is far greater.

In fact former king Mahendra had suggested that Nepal be a zone of peace and I should say that Nepal, while drawing up its constitution, should declare itself a single-state nuclear-free zone. India and Pakistan have nuclearised the region and seriously undermined security here. Bangladesh should join Nepal to make this a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. They should also demand that the Middle East be made such a zone which will then highlight the culpability of Israel as the only nuclear state in the region. Such a declaration will automatically take care of concerns arising out of Iran's nuclear potential. In fact countries have long been demanding such a zone. The Indian government does not push for such proposals as it does not want to upset Israel or the US and has the temerity to justify its opposition to Iran developing such a potential.

Since foreign policy is supposed to be based on pragmatism are you suggesting that it is not in India's favour to develop relations with Israel?

Ideas of pragmatism and national interest pre-suppose a socially neutral state which can look after the interest of all its citizens. This is problematic. States, even democracies, are biased in favour of certain classes, castes, patriarchy and so on.

Therefore unless pressured from below, states tend to pursue the sectional interest of the powerful and pass it off as national interest. Foreign policy is a combination of morality and pragmatism and just what the mix will be will depend on the nature of the country's political leadership. It is not at all coincidental that leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were so pro-Palestine and would strongly consider morality, decency and dignity in foreign policy in comparison to Rajeev Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh. Gandhi and Nehru were leaders of a moral struggle and mass politics and movements and understood that these were always connected to issues of justice and morality and recognised their importance. Foreign policy does not automatically or routinely pursue national interest.

What can the people of Southasia do for the Palestinian cause as opposed to their governments?

People can fight against their own elites when the latter pursue politics which do not benefit them. The political hope of the poor in Southasia is that there should be justice. Only the elite can ignore the aspect of justice and pass off self-interest as national interest. Since the poor believe in mass justice, the leaders of mass movements of the poor speak of pursuing justice both nationally and internationally. We have common problems in Southasia that we cannot isolate ourselves from; we should therefore unite and fight together.

The role of the US and Israel is part of the problem in militarisation in Southasia too. Israel would like to increase its interests in Sri Lanka and Nepal, just as it has used its military equipment, trade and other sources such as agricultural research, culture and academia, to increase its influence in India which is detrimental to the Palestinian struggle. This is of course something it cannot do in Bangladesh and Pakistan. In such a case the leadership in Nepal has to frame its response. The position of the people of Nepal and other peoples of Southasia regarding the Israel and Palestine issue is not as distant or abstract as it might seem.

~ Aditi Bhaduri is an independent journalist and researcher based in Kolkata and New Delhi.

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