By Swapan Dasgupta
One of Lutyens’ Delhi’s less-guarded secrets is the fact that there were a few diplomatic missions that were banking on Narendra Modi falling flat on his face on May 16, 2014—the day the general election results were declared. According to some well-informed individuals, this included the US Embassy which was understandably concerned that the man they had denied a visa and treated like an untouchable would now be the next Prime Minister. Such a result, it was feared, would leave Washington in an awkward predicament.
The outcome confirmed the US’s worst fears. But it wriggled out of its embarrassment by getting President Obama to congratulate Modi personally and invite him to visit the US. Having dialled a wrong number, the US now sought to make it up with a show of graciousness—although I am pretty sure that gnashed teeth accompanied the show of diplomatic niceties. In any case, since the US’s gratuitous interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country was not even a footnote issue of the general election, it was possible for Washington to swallow its pride without inviting further acrimony.
Last week’s election in Israel was qualitatively different. First, the US and Israel share a special relationship that is far more consequential to both countries than US-India relations. Secondly, short of actually saying so publicly, the Obama administration had made it quite clear that it didn’t want a fourth term for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The pugnacious Netanyahu who prioritises Israel’s national security and future over the larger strategic games Big Powers like to play, had, over the past few years, clearly told Obama where to get off. In particular, he minced no words in underlining his abhorrence of the US’s undue accommodation of Iran’s nuclear programme that poses a grave threat to the very existence of Israel.
Disagreements among world leaders on core national issues is not uncommon. Indeed, it is at the very heart of diplomacy—the endeavour to minimise differences, seek compromises and avert armed conflict. President Obama has every right to disagree with the approach and orientation of Netanyahu. But there are two features of the Obama administration’s behaviour that any sovereign nation will unacceptable. First, it was odd, to say the least, for the US to proffer its views on Netanyahu’s interventions during the course of the election campaign. The US made its displeasure over Netanyahu continuing as the head of the government quite apparent. Indeed, it seemed that it was directly trying to influence voting intentions in Israel. Secondly, after Netanyahu’s Likud Party defied the pollsters and outpolled the main opposition Zionist Union, the US went into a mood that can best be called petulant. In its churlish reactions to the outcome, it seemed to question the gumption of Israelis to disobey the advice of Washington. The predictably hostile comments of the American liberal media, notably the New York Times, to the election outcome was indicative.
It often happens—and more so with American liberals—that what seems appropriate for a country from the perspective of Washington or Manhattan isn’t similarly viewed by the people who are directly affected. This is a consequence of democracy, a political system the US often believes it has a copyright over. It is quite clear that the late surge for Netanyahu was a result of his success in conveying to Israeli voters that he would not be arm-twisted by Obama. In other words, the people of Israel made it quite clear that it was resolutely opposed to any two-state settlement that skirts the fundamental issue of Israel’s national security.
In the coming days, unless the Obama administration cools off, we are likely to witness a sustained bid to coerce Israel into disregarding the political message of the election. Having failed to effect a regime change, the strains in US-Israel relationship will be the signal for another global bout of Israel-bashing. It is, for example, likely that the over-politicised UN Human Rights Council will release a report damning Israel’s conduct in Gaza. This report may even be voted upon in the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva. Now that Sri Lanka is likely to be given a breather, the focus is likely to revert to Israel.
Prime Minister Modi was among the first leaders to congratulate Netanyahu on his re-election and his tweet in Hebrew was appreciated greatly in Israel. The Indian PM knows and recognises the enormous potential of India’s ties with Israel and, unlike our earlier government, isn’t afraid of saying so publicly. Consequently, he will recognise that the forthcoming UNHRC report, whose conclusions were pre-determined, is less a tearful outpouring of overpaid human rights activists as a political intervention against Israel. Its context is obvious.
Having been a target of the human rights evangelists himself, Modi must make the necessary diplomatic adjustments to ensure that the UNHRC is de-politicised and doesn’t become an instrument to target countries that have fallen on the wrong side of organised lobbies. The Government of India must reassess the validity of its votes against Israel and Sri Lanka in various international fora, not least the UNHRC. It must repudiate the very principle of intrusive diplomacy—particularly when the targets happen to be vibrant democracies.
It was decent of Modi to tweet his congratulations to Netanyahu. Now he should act on it.
Sunday Pioneer, March 22, 2015