Economic pragmatism and peace in the South


Those with an open mind on Middle East issues are bound to have welcomed the sight in this newspaper of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa shaking hands with the Israeli ambassador to Sri Lanka Resident in New Delhi Ron Malka. Among other things, the picture signalled Sri Lanka’s eagerness to establish close and cordial links with Israel, a multifaceted and economically strong Middle East state. Besides, Israel proved to be a friend in need for Sri Lanka during the war years.

Slowly but surely, Sri Lanka has come to recognize the importance of conducting mutually-beneficial and sustained links with Israel and from this country’s viewpoint this development is of historic importance. This is on account of the fact that until around 15 years ago Sri Lanka too thought it judicious not to fully diplomatically recognize Israel.

The reasons for this were primarily economic in nature. The considerations that came into play in the early post-independence decades were that Sri Lanka was dependent on the Arab world for her oil supplies and she could not afford to rub hard line Arab/Muslim opinion on the wrong side by diplomatically recognizing Israel; seen by some Arab and Muslim countries as their sworn enemy.

However, around 20 or more years ago no less a principal regional power than India established diplomatic relations with Israel, shrugging off prejudices against the latter and this was a pointer to the fact that there are more minuses than pluses for Southern states that insist on internationally isolating Israel. Clearly, India perceived it to be in her best interests to establish close links with Israel. The rationality of this Indian decision is borne by Israel’s growing economic and military strength, besides other considerations.

Today, Israel is a source of employment for many a Southern state, including Sri Lanka. Perhaps unknown to the generality of the local public until recently, Sri Lankans in increasing numbers have been taking-up jobs in Israel, including in the capacity of care-takers of the elderly. Many Lankans ought to be obtaining jobs in the agriculture sector in Israel, considering that Israel succeeded in ‘greening’ the near-arid land which they came to inhabit. Reports said that ambassador Malka pledged to support Sri Lanka in the fields of modern technology for education, vocational training, transportation, modern agriculture, besides other areas of mutual interest.

Sri Lanka’s decision to step-up relations with Israel should be seen as a foreign policy victory for Sri Lanka, considering that freeing foreign policies of ideological blinkers is a growing challenge before many a Southern state currently. It is plain to see that the volatility of the international economy is such that relations among states need to be based on economic pragmatism in the main.

Accordingly, the South would need to approach foreign policy issues from an essentially economic self-interest point of view. Purely ideology based perspectives would prove ineffective in even the short term, given the magnitude of the economic pressures building-up on Southern polities. Among other factors, the coronavirus crisis and issues stemming from it are likely to have a highly debilitating impact on the South. This is on account of the wide-ranging, international impact of aggravating economic issues in China and right now the latter ought to be feeling the economic strain growing out of the epidemic within her borders.

The foregoing does not mean that injustices suffered by the Palestinians should be ignored or glossed over by particularly the South. The main actors in the Middle East problem and the international community need to forge ahead towards finding a just solution to the Middle East crisis and there is no ducking this responsibility. Right now, the two-state solution offers itself as a rational way out of the decades-long crisis. However, it ought to be clear to all concerned that there is no military solution to the conflict.

This is because neither side to the problem could be militarily defeated.

Considering the above, the South would do well to support a political solution to the wasting Middle East problem. Ideally, the smaller states of the South should project a collective, independent voice on this crisis based on rational, pragmatic considerations. One of the toughest challenges these smaller states would face is getting out of the sphere of influence of bigger regional states who act on the basis of mainly individual interests that are not identical to those of smaller countries.

The world is also badly in need of a meeting of minds among the major powers on the on-going, bleeding conflicts in the South.

Four of these are, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and the Yemen. Needless to say, some big powers have been intervening in a major way in these theatres and unless and until there is a consensus among them to end the wars politically we are unlikely to see an end to the crises. Some of these major powers are: the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey. Essentially, humanity must be enabled to triumph above other considerations and UN intervention ought to be facilitated.

As this is being written, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has gone on record as stating that terrorist groups would not be allowed to operate from Pakistani soil. This pronouncement should have the effect of strengthening peace processes in South Asia. Hopefully, this will be so in the case of Afghanistan, where we are told, the Taliban is about to arrive at a peace deal with the US. Likewise, Syria should be enabled to stop bleeding and Russia would prove a peace facilitator in that theatre provided a principled stance is taken on the conflict by her.

In a way, the current ‘international disorder’ should be seen as the proverbial blessing in disguise. It helps in driving home the point that threadbare ideologies and traditional modes of thinking would no longer suffice in managing the issues that are upon the world. We need to think ‘outside the box’ and one option that is offering itself in these circumstances is economic pragmatism. It would be found that this frame of mind comes in handy in bridge-building.

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