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The Arab Spring changed the political topography of the Middle East. Stalwart regimes of the old order gave way to democratically elected governments. Since 1979, these old regimes have provided an element of “stability” that favoured the aims of the United States and its local subsidiary, Israel. Despite the deprivation and the prisons for the populations of the region, oil continued to flow and Israel remained unthreatened. Indeed, an annual subsidy from the U.S. exchequer to the Egyptian army provided the monetary gesture for Egypt to uphold its peace agreement with Israel. Absent a threat from Egypt, the Israeli armed forces enjoyed an asymmetrical military advantage over Lebanon (with invasions by Israel in 1982, 1996, and 2006) and over the Palestinian lands (with a sustained occupation of its rump territories since 1967).
No such decisive advantage remains, since a popularly controlled Egyptian army of the near future might not allow Israel such carte blanche. On July 25, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak signalled the shift with a call for confrontationwith Iran, “The events of the Arab Spring, which have gradually evolved into an Islamic summer, show that at the ultimate hour of decision we can rely at the moment of truth on ourselves alone.” The old pillars have fallen. The U.S. may no longer be able to bribe Israel’s neighbours to uphold a one-sided peace. Israel seeks new allegiances, including from far-off India.
In the U.S., another Spring blossomed several years ago. After the 1967 Arab-Israel War, a section of the Jewish American population offered its unadulterated support to Israel. This bloc provided the mass base for Washington’s Israel Lobby, which put pressure on the government to back Israel regardless of its occupation of the Palestinian lands. Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism (2012) shows that a new generation of Jewish Americans refuses to give Israel such an unquestioned commitment. A survey sponsored by the old guard found that young Jews want an “open and frank” discussion of Israel’s policies, that “young Jews desperately want peace” and that “some empathise with the plight of the Palestinians.” They now see that the road to peace does not travel through the West Bank Wall, neither via Israel’s violation of the 4th Geneva Convention with the settlement activity.
The shift in attitudes came alongside the coming of age of a young Arab American population, soured by the racism that followed 9/11 and the wars in the Arab lands. It had an ear for the developments in Occupied Palestine, where the Israeli armed forces had ratcheted up the violence from 2000. A conference at Berkeley in 2001 repeated the Palestinian call for “boycott-divestment-sanctions” against Israel. As Omar Barghouti, one of the Palestinian leaders of this movement, noted, it was time to “besiege Israel’s siege.” The BDS campaign flourishes, growing out of the enclaves of the Left into the mainstream. It has begun to pressure U.S. lawmakers on an issue that was seen as settled, namely their loyal support for Israeli policy.
India’s historical support to the Palestinian cause was dampened in the 1990s when the government sought a new equation with Israel as part of the general pro-U.S. foreign policy tilt. Under the BJP-led government (1998-2004), relations between Israel and India hardened, with intelligence cooperation and arms sales as the cement. By 2006, India registered a record purchase of $1.6 billion of defence equipment from Israel. The head of Israel’s Foreign Defense Assistance and Defense Export Department Major General Yossin Ben-Hanan told the Economic Times in 2007 that India was Israel’s biggest customer. Over the course of the past five years, India continued to buy Israeli equipment, although both governments are chary about releasing data.
Israel’s flagging economy has been buoyed by its arms sales sector. The government-owned Israeli Arms Industry (IAI), the Israel Military Industries and the Rafael Arms Development Authority anchor Israel’s 150 defence firms, which collectively employ 60,000 people and earn revenues over $4 billion. India has been buying missile systems, radars and early warning systems, unmanned aerial vehicles and field guns from Israel. On March 8, 2012, the Indian Ministry of Defence banned the Israel Military Industries for 10 years over a 2009 bribery scandal, where Israeli bribes opened doors at the Ordnance Factory Board of India. Selling arms is central to the Israeli economy, and selling arms to India has become essential at any cost.
A new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows that India remains the world’s largest importer of weaponry. It estimates that over the next 15 years, India will spend $149 billion to buy arms. The U.S. remains the largest arms dealer. The projected increases in India’s arms buying have set in motion frenzy in Israel’s arms sector.
As India increases its purchases from Israel, it underwrites Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian lands. The volume of India’s imports helps Israel’s government-owned arms industry more cheaply manufacture weaponry that is essential for the Israeli army as it smothers Palestinian dreams of freedom in the moth-eaten Palestinian territories.
At the fourth BRICS summit in March 2012, its Delhi Declaration publicly entered the fray regarding Middle East peace. It called upon the countries of the region and the U.S. and Europeans to move toward a settlement of the conflict based on “the universally recognised international legal framework including the relevant U.N. resolutions, the Madrid principles and the Arab Peace Initiative.”
India is torn between the Israeli-U.S. game plan for the Middle East and the BRICS potential. It is, on the one side, trying to distance itself from Iran, building up new alliances with Saudi Arabia and increasing its arms and intelligence links with Israel. India has backed the U.S. policy to isolate Iran, with Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Nirupama Rao indicating that India is to adhere to its path of cutting off oil imports from Iran. As the Israelis and the U.S. move to war with Iran, the Indian public response has been anaemic, notwithstanding the six million Indian nationals who reside in the region (and the untold suffering to Iranians in the event of a war on that country). Seventy per cent of Indian oil comes out of the Straits of Hormuz, and any war on Iran would be cataclysmic for India and for the Global South’s potential to weather the turbulence of the global recession. India has also intimated an affinity with the West’s orientation toward the dangerous situation in Syria.
On the other hand, India tried to work with the BRICS agenda on Libya (it abstained on the U.N. Security Council resolution 1973, authorising force against Qadhafi’s regime). India proposed a U.N. draft resolution on February 18, 2011 that called the Israeli settlements in the occupied lands “illegal” (the first resolution vetoed by the Obama administration). India also participated in the lead-up to the diplomatic conference in Ramallah (West Bank) on illegal settlement activity. On August 5, 2012, the Israeli government refused to allow the delegations from Algeria, Bangladesh, Cuba, Indonesia and Malaysia to enter Ramallah for this conference. As a consequence, India and the other Non-Aligned Movement members boycotted the conference. Hanan Ashrawi, on the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, said in response: “Israel is trying to not just lay a physical siege but also a political siege. We need to be able to move, to breathe, to act as a member of the community of nations. We cannot constantly be under the boot.” The issue of settlements returns to the U.N. in November.
India’s is a hard dance to sustain. It, however, makes sense given the national interests of the ruling sections in India. Their global ambitions move them in the direction of the U.S. and Israel, but the values of the freedom movement and of the non-aligned period of Indian foreign policy, not to mention the question of Indian national interests, pull in another direction. There is no easy arithmetic in the world of international relations, which is precisely why it is necessary for India to stay clear of the binding association with the ossified policy agenda on the Middle East of the U.S.-Israel. As the document Nonalignment 2.0 put it, India should avoid the “escalating rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” with the latter aligned with the U.S. and Israel.
India needs to join the new spirit of the Arab lands and throw its considerable weight once more behind the aspirations of the Palestinians. That India subsidises the Occupation is morally indefensible. It is imperative that more pressure be brought on the government to reconsider its web of arms purchases and intelligence agreements with Israel. The largest democracy in the world is ill-advised to stand on the side of colonialism.
Vijay Prashad is the author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press) and is on the advisory board of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Prabir Purkayastha is with the Delhi Science Forum and the Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
This article originally appeared in The Hindu