The Puzzling Israeli, Saudi, Indian Shia Diplomacy In Lucknow
Saudis and Israelis and local Shia leaders meet at the Imambara in Lucknow.
In May 1993, Shimon Peres became the first Israeli Foreign Minister to visit India. Rajiv Gandhi had taken the initiative to upgrade relations. P.V. Narasimha Rao actually accelerated the process which led to the opening of embassies in Tel Aviv and New Delhi.
Rajiv had to overcome considerable inertia on relations with Israel. Yes, India’s support for the Palestinian cause was non negotiable but the argument that Indian Muslims would be agitated if relations with the Jewish state were upgraded were patently false. Indian foreign policy being sensitive to minority interests was totally different from policy being hostage to Muslim whims. This would lend credence to the whispering campaign, against Muslim appeasement the Indian Right was embarked on ever since Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969.
Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Shah Bano and Muslim Personal Law, the minority character of Aligarh Muslim University and such like issues had all been exaggerated as matters of vital concern to Indian Muslims. They needed security, education, jobs, entrepreneurial help and de ghettoisation.
Upgrading of relations with Israel had a global context. Collapse of the Soviet Union had created a compelling Sole Superpower moment. The set of reasons that caused P.V. Narasimha Rao to invent Manmohan Singh as his Finance Minister also operated in the switch towards Israel.
So internally prepared was the Indian establishment to clasp the hands of the West and its powerful engine, namely Israel, that the “switch” became a “lurch”. And this “lurch” began to look particularly unseemly after George W. Bush, embarked on a global war on terror.
Instead of quelling terror, this war ended up unwittingly promoting recruitment cells for terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Central Asia, Europe, US, Russia, China, everywhere.
In brief, promotion of relations with Israel in early 90s made sense because of the altered global situation and the promise of peace embedded in the Oslo process. An imbalance in India’s foreign policy was being corrected. Israel was being brought into groups India already was dealing with.
There was a measure in New Delhi’s steps then. In fact, when I asked Peres why there was not much substance in a relationship which had been inaugurated with such fanfare, he quipped:
“India-Israel relations were like French perfume: they had to be smelt not drunk.”
That was then; a relationship along with all the others in West Asia.
After the negative fallout of the War on terror, one would have expected New Delhi to proceed cautiously on a path that would prevent a 200 million strong Muslim community in India being alienated.
Earlier the Indian leadership has been wrong in holding up its equation with Israel because of the wrong assumption that such a step would anger Indian Muslims. It was perverse to see the Palestinian issue through a communal prism. But the manner in which New Delhi subsequently hurtled headlong towards Israel despite universal Muslim anger because of the provocative way in which the global war on terror was fought, distinctly hurt Indian Muslims. These circumstances are a total contrast to those attending the Peres visit in 1993.
This is why eyebrows have been raised by the puzzling visit to Lucknow by Dore Gold, Director General of the Israeli Foreign office. This happened in May when it was more or less certain that the nuclear deal with Iran would be signed in June or July.
At the Lucknow meeting, Gold was flanked by high powered former Israeli military and Intelligence officers. What was even more spectacular about the Lucknow conclave was the presence of an equally high profile team from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi delegation was let by retired Major General Dr. Anwar Majed Eshki, Chairman of a Jeddah based think tank and once close to Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The delegations had the sanction of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
What was the purpose of the Lucknow meet? Who organized it?
The meeting could not have taken place without New Delhi’s unofficial support. Arrangements for the conclave were made by the Vivekanand International Foundation. National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, was Founder Director of the think tank. The bandobast for the meeting was handled by Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain of the Foundation who retired some years ago as Commander of the 15 Corps in Srinagar.
The Indian delegation was led by the former Raja of Mehmudabad, scion of a Shia family with wide connections in the Shia world, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Obviously, the Israeli-Saudi delegation were keen to gauge Iranian influence on Indian Shias, the potential for Shia-Sunni differences on future Indian attitude towards Iran, after Iran becomes globally kosher post the nuclear deal.
Possible construct on the Lucknow meet, one of the five such meetings in various parts of the world, is an Israeli-Saudi desire to enter a consultative phase of diplomacy. So far they have operated in the Washington, Riyadh, Jerusalem triangle.
Above all, by holding hands in public, Jerusalem and Riyadh are institutionalizing a burgeoning romance. This will have ramifications.
New Delhi can now play the Iranian string to its bow without looking over its shoulder for Israeli and Saudi sensitivities, the latter being a longstanding patron of Pakistan.
It is not nice to feel isolated in the region. At a recent meeting with the Taleban in Rawalpindi, both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, were overseen in the same room by US and Chinese officials.
Is it over ambitious to spot seeds of a reliable back channel with Iran and Israel, should the need ever arise in the uncharted post nuclear deal roadmap?