Sri Lanka-Israel Relations By Kalana Senaratne

The Emerging Trend of Principled Diplomacy

Concerns raised and votes cast, this way or that, for or against us, help dispel doubts which linger concerning inter-state relations or affairs between states. If we needed a counter-response to our response on Israel’s recent war in Gaza, we received it during the recently concluded Special Session on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva – when Israel called for a human rights probe in Sri Lanka.

fea11-1Many are surprised, concerned. Some, since they hold on to the conventional/orthodox rationale, which is akin to this: ‘Israel is our friend, it sold us weapons, it sells us weapons, it helped us fight the LTTE, therefore it needs to be our friend, always’. Others who are genuinely concerned point out that the relationship should be mended, through a greater coordinated effort (as pointed out by Mr. K. Godage, in a piece published in The Island, titled ‘Why has Israel turned against us?’) – which is important. Some others can also be dismayed, if these developments are viewed from a narrow political perspective; for it’s generally acknowledged that it was a UNP-government, mainly through the efforts of the then National Security Minister, the late Lalith Athulathmudali, which built up close relations with Israel, especially on the military front, after an era in which the Sri Lanka-Israel relationship was not at its best. However, I consider the current Sri Lanka-Israel relations from a different perspective, which is as follows:

Sri Lanka, through its comprehensive triumph over terrorism, has emerged as a nation that is justifiably considered as having conducted its military operations in a manner far superior to those operations conducted by many other powerful states around the world, in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and even Gaza; superior in respect of respecting IHL, superior in terms of the effort put in to protect civilians, superior in terms of the desired result being achieved with minimum damage to civilians, etc. In pursuing the goal of defeating the LTTE, the avowed desire of President Rajapaksa was to ensure that Sri Lanka, unlike any other state wherever it may be, carried out its military operations in the most ethical and humane manner, guided by principles, such as, ‘proportionality’, ‘distinction’ and ‘zero casualties’. From the Mavil Aru operation to the final battles in Mulathivu, the SL armed forces carried out, to a large extent, what could be termed a most remarkable counter terrorism-cum-humanitarian mission.

The crux of this policy was most eloquently captured by President Rajapaksa, in his speech in Parliament on May 19, 2009, wherein he stated that our soldiers, in carrying out the massive humanitarian operation, went forth ‘with gun in one hand and the Human Rights Declaration in the other, carrying hostages on their shoulders and with unbounded love for children in their hearts’; a clear message that we were different from the rest, in the conduct of counter-terrorism operations.

Israel entered the picture at a time when Sri Lanka was vigorously pursuing this policy along with the advocacy of it in various international fora, in particular at the UNHRC in Geneva; in the form of the war it launched in Gaza, the blitzkrieg or ‘pogrom’ (as The Economist called it), on December 27, 2008. The horror so shamelessly unleashed is well documented, elsewhere, by many. In sum, it was a war which clearly ran counter to the humanitarian principles cherished by Sri Lanka, a war fought in a way which could not be condoned, excused, under any circumstances whatsoever. Quite simply, Sri Lanka carried out major humanitarian missions and hostage rescue operations, creating opportunities for civilians to escape the clutches of the LTTE amid trying circumstances. Israel engaged in an operation that effectively blocked, or sealed off, most of the exit routes available to civilians in Gaza.

Amid such action resorted to by Israel – action which may have startled the most ardent supporters of the Israeli state – Sri Lanka could not remain quiescent. If she did, it would have been sheer hypocrisy; the practice of ‘double-standards’ the way in which some of our Western friends practised it. Sri Lanka had to come out forcefully; and we did, quite forcefully, especially at the UNHRC, during the 9th Special Session on Israel; a place where Israel was taken by surprise, a place which may have been marked by Israel as most suited for her counter-response, when the opportunity arrived, in the form of the 11th Special Session on Sri Lanka. Whatever reservations one may have had concerning the way in which our ambassador in Geneva came out against Israel (which, today, has been ‘approved’ by the President), this response, most poignantly, showed that we were principled, unlike during any other time, on the issue of foreign relations, especially at a defining moment in Sri Lanka’s history. An important aspect of our foreign policy perspectives relating to states engaged in armed conflict, was being shaped, based on the domestic state of affairs, on the moral strength we derived in countering terrorism in an ethical manner.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s stance on Israel was consistent with other broader policy decisions taken by Sri Lanka; consonant, most importantly, with the foreign policy directions that President Rajapaksa promoted, supported.

Firstly, Sri Lanka’s condemnation of Israel was in line with the very principled stand we had taken, and continue to take, concerning Palestine and the two-state solution; a policy greatly welcomed by our close friend Palestine, over the years; a policy firmly rooted in our endorsement of Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) – during an era in which even one of our most sterling diplomats, late Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe, who chaired the ‘Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Population of the Occupied Territories’ (set up in 1969), was reportedly branded ‘pro-Palestine’.

Also, then, this was in line with our condemnation of Israel’s illegal occupations; the seriousness of which was driven home recently, when President Obama’s request for a suspension of further Jewish settlements in the West Bank was received with vehement opposition by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stating that halting construction settlements is equal to ‘freezing life’, and hence ‘unreasonable’.

Secondly, this policy stance on Israel was consistent with, a) the emerging policy of Sri Lanka concerning the ‘West’, and Sri Lanka’s close, ever growing, ties with certain states opposed to the West or the US (such as Iran, which is not US’s, or its ally Israel’s, bosom friend), and b) our re-strengthening of ties with the NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) Group of States, which, having strongly condemned the military aggression in Gaza, issued a stinging statement, condemning Israeli action as ‘unacceptable’ and one which constituted a ‘grave breach of international humanitarian law, including human rights law’, aggression which showed the ‘continued collective punishment of the Palestinian people’.

Hence, as to whose side we were on, concerning the Israel-Palestine issue, or even on the issue of Gaza, should not have been a surprise if the above factors were carefully considered.

The above arguments, however, are not a justification for causing a rupture in our relations with Israel. Making enemies was never Sri Lanka’s intention. Sri Lanka should remain grateful for Israel’s military assistance. Neither do the above points ignore the indirect, adverse, impact on Sri Lanka; especially relating to the influence of the Jewish lobby on the US Congress, which one could claim, would influence the US administration to Sri Lanka’s detriment.

Yet, again, I believe these should be considered in perspective. Firstly, there is serious doubt over whether one could seriously claim that the war couldn’t have been won without Israel’s assistance. Even as a British House of Commons Research Paper (titled ‘War and Peace in Sri Lanka’, 09/51, dated 5 June 2009) states, China remains Sri Lanka’s biggest arms supplier, while Russia, Pakistan, Ukrain and Israel remain significant exporters. Have we not, then, counter-balanced the effect or impact of a ‘possible’ loss of Israel’s military assistance by gaining assistance from others with whom our relations are further improving? Secondly, one should temper the ‘Jewish lobby’ argument with certain facts such as the rather narrow and limited influence that AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee), the main representative of the Jewish community as a whole has on the US Congress, wherein it’s a ‘minyan club’ of a few extremist businessmen within this circle of representatives who have some influence over the US administration.

At a time when President Rajapaksa has called for a new era, a new beginning, of firm foreign relations, I only hope he continues with this principled diplomatic stance he has taken, ably assisted by his diplomatic representatives around the globe. The critical question, however, is this: is this emerging trend of principled diplomacy sustainable? Is the President confident that he has got his best man to give leadership to what is, in my opinion, a refreshing foreign relations policy?

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