Hindu Vivek Kendra
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A Question Of Chemistry

A Question Of Chemistry

Author: K.P. Nayar
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: May 15, 2002

The recent flare-up in west Asia, the biggest in the region since the Yom Kippur war nearly 30 years ago, has valuable lessons for India. For the first time in half a century, it has brought into sharp scrutiny, Israel's hitherto successful handling of its ties with its biggest and most important supporter in the world: the United States of America. For several dec- ades, successive Indian ambassadors in Washington have fantasized that they could do to the US what the Jewish lobby has always done with great finesse - twist the American establishment around their little finger the way they wanted.

For about ten years now, New Delhi has tried to replicate the Israeli experience in Washington in terms of winning friends and influencing people. To a very large extent, India's successes in dealing with the US in recent years and building on them were the result of these efforts to copy the Jewish way of dealing with official America. India is not alone in doing this. There are very small countries which have scored in Washington well beyond their size and importance simply because they have tapped into the Israeli lobby in America under various pretexts: in some cases only because the envoys from these countries are Jewish and have been able to cash in on the camaraderie which it entails.

Diplomats in the US capital are, however, realizing that for the first time since the founding of the Jewish state these unwritten rules of diplomacy in Washington are being challenged in the wake of the violence in west Asia, which began with Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to Temple Mount. That the rules of the game in Washington are being rewritten for America's Jewish lobby was brought home during the visit to the White House last week of Israel's hawkish prime minister. Sharon's White House visit, to the surprise of most America-watchers, was a bit like Pervez Musharraf's trip to the US earlier this year: not a failure, but much less of a success than was predicted or expected.

Herein lies the lesson which India cannot afford to miss as Indo-US relations are at the crossroads. Simply replicating the modus operandi of the Jewish lobby in the US will no longer work. There is room for more original thinking in India's dealings with the US, and more important, room for an injection of greater substance at various levels. This is an assertion which may surprise many, but the rising star on the US's diplomatic horizon, believe it or not, is Saudi Arabia. But more on that later. Sharon arrived in the US last week with a clear agenda and was confident that he could get the imprimatur of the White House on his objectives. After all, the Israelis have all along been used to having their way in Washington. Primarily, Sharon was determined to eliminate Yasser Arafat from any future decision-making process on Palestine and secure US backing for his line that Israel would not negotiate with the chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

In order to achieve this goal, the Israeli prime minister arrived with briefcases full of documents, which, he claimed, implicated Arafat directly in acts of terrorism. Before Sharon's arrival, supporters of Israel and Tel Aviv's diplomats here made the point that there was more evidence linking Arafat to terrorist acts than any documentation which established a connection between Osama bin Laden and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11. Which, incidentally, is true. Moreover, Sharon wanted to put the west Asia peace plan of the Saudi Arabian crown prince, Abdullah, out of the reckoning and, instead, get American endorsement for his own peace proposals to end the violence in the region. Critically aware that Riyadh's stars are rapidly rising in Washington, Sharon hoped to dent Abdullah's credibility and discredit the Saudis by insisting that they were financing the suicide bombers in the West Bank and Gaza.

To prove his point, Sharon brought along papers which listed $165 million in payments by Riyadh to Palestinians, half a million of this amount in assistance to families of suicide bombers in the last one and a half years alone. The prime minister had detailed talks with George W Bush, but he returned to Jerusalem without achieving any of his three objectives to the silent chagrin of Jewish lobbyists and other supporters of Israel in America.

That this happened in spite of unprecedented support for the Jewish state in the US congress is something which should make Indians sit up and think. Indian lobbyists and the Indian-American community have invested heavily on securing goodwill on Capitol Hill. In times of crisis, when the executive branch of the US government has been ambivalent, they have used the US congress as their route to get to the White House and the rest of the administration. But Sharon's experience in Washington is a timely reminder to New Delhi against any temptation to put too many, if not all, of India's eggs in the Capitol Hill basket. Timed to coincide with Sharon's visit, both the US senate and the house of representatives passed separate resolutions expressing America's solidarity with Israel. Only two senators dared to vote against the motion: in the house of representatives, the vote was 352 to 21.

But it is a reflection of the way business is done in the Bush White House that such overwhelming sentiment in favour of Israel did not sway the president into giving in to the prime minister of Israel last week. The personality of the present occupant of the White House is such that chemistry is very important. And there is no chemistry between Bush and Sharon. On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for the chemistry between Bush and Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz. Prince Bandar is the son of Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the kingdom's second deputy prime minister and minister of defence.

An alumnus of Washington's Johns Hopkins University and several US military colleges, Prince Bandar communicates with Bush far better than most foreigners the president meets, simply by having been ambassador in Washington for 19 years and having a keen sense of how to get things done in America.

Jaswant Singh is one of those in New Delhi's power structure, who realized early on in the Bush presidency, the importance of such good chemistry. When the external affairs minister visited Washington in April last year and had his first meeting with Bush, he made sure that every minute that he spent in the Oval Office, every sentence that was uttered there was carefully cultivated to build that chemistry. Singh told Bush at that meeting, for instance, that the president had the opportunity which comes but once in history to completely transform America's ties with India, a process which his father had started. Singh subsequently told everyone he could in Washington how wrong the public perception of Bush was, what a good grasp he had on public issues, how he went straight to the core of a problem and how graceful it was of the president to have received an Indian minister on a day when the Senate was voting on his pet tax cut proposals.

This was well before September 11 catapulted Bush to dizzy heights of popular approval. Millions of Americans still thought of Bill Clinton as the last elected president of the US, and Bushisms, the book which listed the president's record of putting his foot in his mouth, was raking in dollars in bookstores all across America. But while chemistry is an important ingredient in the Bush White House, it becomes omnipotent when it is also backed by sound policy, as the divergent experiences of Sharon and Prince Bandar reveal. Sharon returned to Jerusalem empty-handed because Israel overplayed its hand in Washington. Over the head of the Bush administration, the Israelis tried to inordinately influence the American political process by discrediting the Saudis on the eve of a meeting between the foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, and the secretary of state, Colin Powell.

The Saudis are now beating the Israelis at their own game in Washington. Riyadh pays a phenomenal $200,000 a month to the lobbying firm, Qorvis Communications, to promote its interests and point of view. In addition, it has hired two other lobbying firms: Patton Boggs for a flat fee of $100,000 for two months, and Hill and Knowlton on a longer-term arrangement for a fee of $77,000 a month. The latter helped Kuwait to put together its public relations campaign in Washington after the emirate was occupied by Iraq in 1990.

Slick efforts by Prince Bandar in doing diplomatic business the way it is done in Washington have convinced the White House that its interests lie in going along with the Saudis on multiple fronts. Bush, therefore, believes that Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan is the only viable path to peace in west Asia at this moment and that Sharon is being negative in trying to discredit that plan.

But most important of all, Bush wants Saudi, and Arab, support for his crucial plans to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Riyadh has let him know that the key to any such support is its peace plan. Embracing that plan also means giving Arafat a role in the peace process, although the idea may be anathema to Sharon. All of which means the Israelis have a problem in Washington, which they had never encountered before.

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