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13 July 2015, Gateway House

Reassessing our Israel, Arab engagement

The announcement in June of a Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran has to be seen in the context of the strategic dimensions of India’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, and the U.S. And it has far-reaching implications for India’s policy towards West Asia

Professor, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University

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The announcement on 4 June 2015  at the major Washington-based think tank, Council on Foreign Relations, of a Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran, comes a little before the visits to Jerusalem by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The alliance cements a unique relationship between historical adversaries who, for different reasons, virulently oppose Iran. This development has to be seen in the context of the strategic dimensions of India’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, and the U.S. And it has far-reaching implications for India’s policy towards West Asia

Details of the alliance were conveyed by retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki, who is chair of the Jeddah-based Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, and Dore Gold, president, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the next Israeli foreign secretary.

The Saudi Arabia-Israel alliance opposes the U.S.’s policy of negotiating with Iran, unmindful that the U.S. remains their staunchest benefactor. It is yet another sign of the U.S. distancing itself from the region. Its “leading from behind” in the war against the Islamic State was equally symptomatic of this change. It is also a part of the trend noted by observers since the announcement of the U.S.’s “pivot to Asia.”. The country’s growing oil self-sufficiency is expected to reduce its dependence on Saudi oil, further enhancing this trend.

Contrary to earlier speculation, the alliance was galvanised by the perception that the impending agreement with the P5+1 countries will hasten the realisation of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That Israel is already a nuclear power and Saudi Arabia’s close links with Pakistan will help it become one, has been conveniently side-stepped by the alliance.

But their mutual overtures have still not led Israel and Saudi Arabia to shed old shibboleths: Saudi Arabia to rescind its non-recognition of Israel’s right to exist, and Israel to acknowledge the Saudi peace plan for Palestine.

On the contrary, the Arabs own undermining of the Palestinian cause—after the heady days of the Arab boycott of Israel—over the last three decades has been a tragic reminder of the weakening of the Palestinians. Israel now has a consular office in Qatar and an intelligence presence in the United Arab Emirates. The use of Saudi funds received by Israel to allegedly build new settlements has finally reduced the goal of an independent Palestine state to a chimera.

The alliance will intensify the religious proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and is one more tool in Israel’s relentless opposition to Iran in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere.

Iran’s growing regional profile, through financial and military aid to the “Shia crescent,” has been an equally powerful motivator, along with its nuclear programme. It today provisions, controls, and fights on behalf of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Syria’s Assad, and the Yemeni Houthis. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif, anticipating the successful closure of the P5+1 negotiations has offered assistance to the U.S. to counter the Islamic State.

The growing importance of the three theocratic regimes—Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—as major regional players calls into question India’s long-established policy of giving salience to regimes which were accepting of religious and cultural diversity. The continuing military and propaganda success of the Islamic State had already made this policy untenable.

India’s relationship with Saudi Arabia moved out of the straitjacket of the Pakistan factor after the visit in January 2006 of late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to New Delhi. Cooperation in counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing, together with increasing economic exchanges, are now the main features of this relationship.

The Saudi-Israel alliance once again reaffirms Saudi Arabia’s position as the leader of the Arab world. But while further developing its relations with Saudi Arabia, India will have to be wary of being targeted by Saudi-supported radical Islamic forces.

India’s relations with Israel, its largest weapons supplier, has diversified into other areas like technology exchange and real estate. It makes the management of India’s relationship with Israel easier, with a lesser need to defer to Arab sentiment. The recent Indian abstention on the Israeli resolution in the UN Human Rights Council is a pointer.

Nevertheless, a deeper relationship with Israel needs serious consideration for two reasons: first, Israel now has the perfect conduit in Saudi Arabia to establish relations with Pakistan, a long-cherished goal, to facilitate its weapons exports endangering the security of Indian acquisitions. Consequently, a re-evaluation of India’s arms imports policy becomes imperative. Second, it calls into question Israel’s touting of a “special relationship” with India.

A realistic overhaul of India’s policy towards the Arab world is now urgently needed to assess the emerging challenges and opportunities.

Rajendra Abhyankar, is chairman, Kunzru Centre for Defence Studies and Research, Pune. He is currently professor of Practice of Diplomacy, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington, U.S.

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