Opinion and Editorial

The rationale behind Sri Lanka’s ties with Israel

Ameen Izzadeen
Filed on December 5, 2006

A COLLEAGUE last week asked me why Sri Lankan Muslims were silent over a visible change in the government's Palestinian policy. Years ago, the Palestinian issue was not only a major foreign policy concern but also a domestic political issue. The late prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike equated Zionism with racism and called for its defeat.

The two main political parties -- the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party - used to woo Muslims at election times by openly declaring their support for the Palestinian cause and reminding them the steps they had taken in this regard.

But the ethnic conflict has made governments in Sri Lanka to think more in terms of national interest even if it means abandoning the Palestinian cause and incurring the wrath of the Muslims, who constitute 8.5 per cent of the country's near 20 million population.

Why are Muslims in Sri Lanka keeping silent when Colombo failed to vote for a recent United Nations General Assembly resolution which condemned Israeli killings and atrocities in the Gaza Strip? Probably, they have other pressing problems to worry about.

In the mid 1980s, when the United States said it would supply weapons to Sri Lanka to fight the separatist war only if India approved the move, the pro-western government of President JR Jayewardene felt betrayed. But the US gave us a diplomatic hint that Israel was ready to help us provided we re-establish links with the Zionist state.

The then government decided to open up an Israeli interest section at the US embassy and when the Muslim ministers protested, Jayewardene said those who did not like the decision were free to leave the government. None of the Muslim ministers resigned. But the development paved the way for the rise of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which kept up the drumbeat that Muslim politicians in the mainstream parties had abandoned the Arab-Muslim cause.

To woo the Muslims back into the flock, Jayewardene's successor, R Premadasa, severed diplomatic relations with Israel. But after his death, ties with Israel were restored and again severed, depending on political and national interest exigencies. In 2000, we once again established ties with Israel. Since then ministers and officials from both countries have been visiting each other. Last month, an Israeli delegation including Foreign Ministry's Deputy Director-General Amos Nadai and Israeli Ambassador in India David Danieli, who is accredited to Sri Lanka, met Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and top government leaders.

Sri Lanka maintains strong military ties with the Zionist state, which is oppressing the Palestinian people with impunity. Kfir fighter planes that bomb LTTE targets and give Sri Lankan forces a military upper hand are bought from Israel and we depend on the Zionist nation for spare parts and expertise.

Last week, veteran UN journalist Thalif Deen, in his regular column in the Colombo-based Sunday Times says that Sri Lanka's mission received instructions from the Foreign Ministry to slip out of the UN hall during the crucial vote for the resolution which was unanimously backed by the Non-Aligned bloc and even the European Union, which was usually sympathetic towards Israel.

The US was supported by Australia, Israel and by four states which are known in US circles as "mickey mouse" countries (Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau), for they stand by the US whether the sole super power is morally right or wrong -- and often it is on the wrong side of the moral/immoral divide these days as its veto on the Palestinian resolution has indicated.

"Sri Lanka did not have the courage of its convictions either to vote for, against or even abstain. It just ran away from the Assembly Hall -- in the company of Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Dominican Republic, Turkmenistan, Liberia and Samoa. We certainly were not in illustrious company -- to say the least," columnist Deen reporting from the UN said.

Sri Lanka may justify playing truant at UN by citing its national interest and security needs. If that is so, we assume that the mandarins at the Presidential Secretariat or the Foreign Ministry do not know that national interest is a compromise on conflicting political interests. Basic diplomacy teaches that if a country's national interest is in conflict with the national interest of other states, the state should be prudent enough to adopt a policy that balances its needs and aspirations with the needs and aspirations of the other states -- in this instance, Arab and Muslim states, which have stood by Sri Lanka and helped this island nation in many ways. For instance, a few months ago, Arab and Islamic nations helped Sri Lanka win a seat in the newly created UN Human Rights Council.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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