By Swapan Dasgupta
Shortly after I returned from a week-long trip to Israel hosted by the Government of Israel, a literary type in Delhi asked me in all sincerity: “Didn’t you feel uneasy making the trip? After all, there is the entire Palestinian question.”
It’s a question that may betray the deeply ingrained political correctness of all those over-exposed to liberal circles in both Europe and North America. Over the past 15 years or so, particularly after the first intifada, there has been an inclination to view Israel as this generation’s South Africa: a pariah state guilty of unacceptable racism. All over the campuses, solidarity with Palestine and, by implication, disavowal of Israel has become conventional wisdom. Pressured by a determined body of activists, the Boycott, Disinvest and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has gained traction and led to Israeli scholars and institutions facing social boycott and even harassment. Clearly, being anti-Israel is considered a badge of honour in certain influential circles.
It is reassuring that, for once, India hasn’t succumbed to fashion. Ever since Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao initiated formal diplomatic relations in 1992, India-Israel ties have deepened considerably. Today, they span agriculture, water management, internal security and, most important, defence. Departing from template diplomacy, India abstained from this year’s routine indictment of Israel by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Next month, for the first time since Independence, the President of India will undertake a state visit to Israel. Although he will also have a night halt in Ramallah, the nominal centre of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, the larger political significance of the visit to Israel is apparent. If all goes according to plan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Israel in 2016 and a return visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should follow in due course. Clearly India-Israel has come a long way since Prime Minister Morarji Desai surreptitiously met the legendary Moshe Dayan in the transit lounge of an Indian airport in 1978.
Nor is India travelling a lonely path in engaging more meaningfully with Israel. Over the years, Israel has established a viable relationship with China and Russia. There has, no doubt, been frostiness in Israel’s relationship with the United States during the Barak Obama administration and particularly over the recent US-Iran understanding—a problem compounded by the energetic BDS campaign—but what is significant is that, rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding, the hyphenation linking Israel to the Arab and Islamic world has been snapped. As Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to the United Arab Emirates and India’s hunger for business opportunities in Iran have demonstrated, it is no longer an either-or situation.
Part of this welcome pragmatism can be attributed to the fact that, unlike the period from 1948 (when Israel came into being as a sovereign country) to 1967, the neighbouring countries no longer realistically believe that Israel can be wiped off the map and its Jewish population thrown into the Mediterranean. This initial belief that the Jewish state must be obliterated did not stem from any over-weaning concern for the plight of the Palestinians who were dispossessed either by design or as a consequence of war. Following the end of the British mandate in 1948, each of the new state’s neighbours detected opportunities for territorial aggrandisement: Egypt wanted a slice of the Negev desert and, possibly, even the Gaza strip; Syria wanted to extend its frontiers to the Jordan River and both sides of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberius); and the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan sought to incorporate the whole of the West Bank and, particularly, Jerusalem within its territorial boundaries.
The military approach failed in 1948 when the newly-established Israel was most vulnerable and it turned into a catastrophe after the Six Day War when Egypt lost Sinai, Syria the strategic Golan Heights and Jordan the West Bank and the whole of Jerusalem. The Yom Kippur war of 1973 restored Egyptian pride somewhat but also signalled the need for a more pragmatic approach to Israel. It led to Egypt under Anwar Sadat negotiating an agreement with Israel and King Hussein of Jordan washing his hands off the entire Palestinian question and transferring it to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation. Only the Baathist-controlled Syria stuck to its irredentism and this was complemented, post-1980, by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
What has prevented an enduring solution to the problem is not the outstanding issue of the Palestinians who were dispossessed in the 1948 conflict. Nor for that matter, and despite its high emotive quotient, has the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank—what many Jews call Judea and Samaria—become the primary concern. The fact that the return to pre-1967 borders is now unrealistic and territorial adjustments to ensure Israel’s security will have to be made is also implicitly understood. The real bone of contention is control over Jerusalem—an issue that goes beyond realpolitik and involves questions of national identity and faith.
The pre-1967 partition of Jerusalem may have suited Jordan because it maintained Islamic sovereignty over the old city, the Al Aqsa mosque and the family graves of the Hashemite monarchy. However, it was regarded as an affront by Israel for two reasons. First, a Jewish state was regarded as incomplete without East Jerusalem; and second, that Jews—ousted from the Jewish quarter of the city—had no access to either the Wailing Wall or the Temple Mount. What complicated matters was the fact that Jerusalem was more than a Jordanian or Palestinian problem: it involved the entire Islamic world. In 2000, Arafat rejected the extraordinarily generous offer by Israel to have a separate Palestinian state based out of East Jerusalem because he felt that he lacked the moral legitimacy to sign away Islamic sovereignty over the Al Aqsa complex.
Arafat was a romantic figure and, by today’s standards, a moderate but in the subsequent 15 years the region has drifted into turbulence. Today, apart from Israel, all the neighbouring countries are deeply unsettled. Egypt confronts a Muslim Brotherhood problem; Lebanon has become the staging post for the radical Hizbollah; Syria is no longer one country and is split three-way; and the writ of the Palestinian Authority does not run in the radical Hamas-controlled Gaza. And, finally, there is Turkey and Iran that appear to have imperial designs based on historical memory.
The issue, therefore, is not the absolute right of Muslims from all over the world to pray at the Al Aqsa shrine or even to manage it. That right has been maintained even by Israel. The issue is a far deeper one and best described by a Muslim-American academic Qanta A. Ahmed in an article in The Times of Israel website as the Islamist insistence on the “territorial and ruthless domination of the public space, of public worship, of external religiosity.” “The policing of belief, and that of believers” she wrote, is a feature of Islamists “who foolishly believe only they are the keepers of our Maker, only they are the arbiters of faith only they the guardians to our Creator.” This might explain why even today Jews have access to what they regard as the sacred Temple Mount but are denied the right to pray there.
It is worth considering, especially in the age of the ISIS, whether the fashionable repudiation of Israel is tantamount to a deification of theocratic exclusivism. Israel has its shortcoming and its own share of the over-zealous but compared to what is happening in the region, it is heaven.
The Telegraph, September 25, 2015