Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Post-January revolution issues: Israeli factor



By Shamindra Ferdinando

July 10, 2015: President Maithripala Sirisena receiving a briefing from the famed Katunayake-based No 10 squadron comprising Israeli-built Kfirs. President Maithripala Sirisena standing near a Kfir multi purpose jet fighter. No. 10 squadron, comprising 10 aircraft, carried out about 1,400 sorties during eelam war IV. Altogether, Israeli, Ukranian and Chinese jets carried out 2,700 sorties during eelam war IV.

Cease diplomatic ties with Jewish State
- Israeli General’s son declares in Colombo

Mike Peled, formerly of the Israeli military, recently declared, in Colombo, that developing countries should boycott the Jewish state. Peled, son of General Matti Peled, urged developing countries to cease diplomatic relations with his country until the government of Israel met legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians. Peled was here on the invitation of Sri Lanka-Palestine Solidarity Committee to deliver a lecture to mark the United Nations Day for International Solidarity with the Palestinian people. Addressing a gathering, at the Sports Ministry auditorium, at Race Course, on Dec 4, Peled pushed for sanctions against Israel. Among those present were Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, former Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Marker and Palestine ambassador in Colombo Zuhair Mohammed Hamdallah. Although the right of the peace activist and author of The General’s Son to propagate his opinion should never be disputed, Sri Lanka need to decide her foreign policy on the basis of her own requirements. It would be a mistake to adopt a course of action that could distance the country from those who stood by a beleaguered Sri Lanka during three decades of turmoil caused by separatist terrorism.

An SLFP delegation met Pakistan High Commissioner, in Colombo Maj Gen (R) Syed Shakeel Hussain, at the latter’s office, in Colombo, on Nov. 25. The delegation assured the Pakistan envoy of the SLFP’s strong opposition to a proposed move to establish an Israeli diplomatic mission in Colombo. The delegation stressed that it was a matter of deep regret, and disappointment, for the SLFP, against the backdrop of twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa backing for the creation of a State of Palestine. The delegation was led by former External Affairs Minister, Prof. G.L. Peiris, and included UPFA MP Udaya Gammanpila, and former Minister, A.H.M. Azwer. Praising Muslim Arab countries for backing the previous government, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and elsewhere, the delegation expressed strong opposition to having an Israel diplomatic mission in Colombo. Of course, the delegation was making representations, on behalf of those UPFA members, still loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The delegation also raised the failure, on the part of the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, to represent the interests of the Muslims here during a recent visit undertaken by US Permanent Representative to the UN, Ms Samantha Power. The Rajapaksa loyalists’ move reflected a sharp split in the SLFP vis a vis Sri Lanka’s foreign policy with President and SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena declaring in no uncertain terms his commitment to a robust relationship with Western powers. President Maithripala Sirisena is on record as having said that the January 8 revolution enabled the restoration of Sri Lanka’s ruptured relations with Western powers.

Now that the Rajapaksa Camp had played politics with a critical foreign policy issue it would be pertinent to examine Sri Lanka’s relationship with the Jewish state in the backdrop of rapidly growing India-Israel ties. A meeting between Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, last week, on the sidelines (during the international climate summit, near Paris), highlighted their relationship. The Israeli media quoted Netanyahu as having told Modi: "We have the best of relations, and they can be made even better. Modi responded: "I am happy that often we can talk easily on telephone, we can discuss everything." Modi is also planning to visit Tel Aviv in the wake of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit last October. It would be pertinent to mention that the Indian leader skipped meaningless Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in Malta, which was held immediately prior to the Paris summit.

Israel also established formal diplomatic ties with China, in 1992. The two countries are now in the process of working out a free trade agreement. Decades long Israel-Japan diplomatic ties, too, are further growing with the latter asserting that Tokyo’s relationship with the Arab world shouldn’t be at the expense of the Jewish state. Unfortunately, a section of the SLFP, in spite of knowing Israeli support to Sri Lanka’s triumph over LTTE terrorism, had declared opposition to having an Israeli diplomatic mission here.

Israeli ambassador in New Delhi concurrently functions as their ambassador in Colombo. Sri Lanka re-established, in May, 2000, with the setting up of a diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv, in October.

The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa closed down the Israeli Interests Section on April 20, 1990, much to the delight of the Muslim community here. The President’s illogical move was meant to silence the then SLFP leadership, which had been clamoring for the closure of the Israeli Interest Section, since President Premadasa’s predecessor, JRJ invited the Israelis to Colombo, in accordance with a tripartite agreement involving the US, Israel and Sri Lanka. The agreement also envisaged the establishment of Voice of America (VOA) station at Iranawila, much to the apprehension of India.

Premadasa acted in the wake of claims that Israel provided training to Tamil terrorists in Israel. The President exploited the situation to accomplish a domestic political requirement.

The then US administration of Ronald Reagan was instrumental in setting up the Israeli Interest Section, here, in response to the growing threat posed by Indian - sponsored terrorist groups. Having declined to provide direct US military assistance as it didn’t want to annoy India, President Reagan instead facilitated a working relationship between Israel and Sri Lanka for the latter to receive both weapons and expertise. The setting up of the Israeli Interest Section, in Colombo, took place in the wake of several high level visits by US officials, including Defence Secretary Casper Weinberger on Oct 1, 1983. Weinberger’s visit was followed by US General Vernon Walters, President Reagan’s special envoy.

Regardless of Premadasa’s absurd move, Sri Lankan military continued to received arms, ammunition and equipment from Israel with the country making some significant acquisitions during the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure. Kumaratunga acquired Kfir multi purpose combat aircraft as well as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The SLAF’s famed Katunayake-based No 10 squadron of Kfirs served Sri Lanka 15 years with a stupendous feat during eelam war IV (Aug 2006-May 2009).

No less person than former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in an interview with the writer, in 2013, discussed how the Pakistani and Israeli instructors had conducted simultaneous training projects at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura and Maduru Oya, respectively. While the Pakistanis had trained Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and junior leaders, whereas the Israeli conducted live firing exercises for those who had been second-in-command of fighting battalions, as well as Captains. Among those who had undergone training, under Israelis, were Sarath Fonseka and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, at that time, with the first battalion of the Sinha Regiment (1SR). Pakistan had never made an issue out of Sri Lanka’s relationship with Israel in spite of some politicians exploiting it for personal gain.

Rajapaksa said: "Unstinted support from Pakistan as well as Israel to train the fighting forces should be examined against that background. In fact, the Pakistani and Israeli training projects were responsible for the success of Operation Liberation conducted in May-June 1987. Foreign expertise gave us confidence at a crucial time during the conflict. Had the SLA failed to obtain foreign training, we would have experienced a major crisis."

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa acknowledged that the SLA could never have successfully faced the threat of terrorism on its own. It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka was the first country in the region targeted by a group of terrorists, sponsored by neighbouring regional power, India."

Pakistan threw its full weight behind successive governments until the LTTE was brought to its knees, on the banks of the Nanthikadal Lagoon, in May, 2009.

Sri Lanka earned the wrath of New Delhi for securing Israeli support during 80s though the situation changed in the wake of India and Israel establishing full diplomatic ties, in 1992. India has emerged the largest importer of Israeli armaments with the relationship between the two countries reaching an extraordinary status. The recent test firing of jointly developed next generation Barak long-range surface-air-missile system, from an Israeli warship, underscored the strategic relationship between Israel and India. In spite of having the third largest Muslim population, India is pursuing an extremely friendly policy towards Israel whereas some political groups here engage in silly games at the expense of national interest.

Sri Lanka could never have achieved victory over the LTTE without Israeli armaments. In addition to Kfirs and UAVs, acquired in 1996, the Jewish State provided Fast Attack Craft (FACs), a pair of Fast Missile Vessels (FMVs) anti-missile systems mounted on helicopter gunships as well as a range of other items. The writer had the opportunity to meet New Delhi-based Israeli ambassadors, concurrently functioning as Tel Aviv’s representatives for Colombo, during their periodic visits here to meet government representatives. Unfortunately, the SLFP had conveniently forgotten the Israeli support to pursue political agenda which in the long run would be inimical to the country as well as the SLFP.

Sri Lanka should take a cue from India and China seeking stronger ties with Israel though the latter often disagree with Israel at the UNHRC. Russia, too, maintains full diplomatic ties with Israel.

Kumaratunga’s government sought full diplomatic ties with Israel in the immediate aftermath of the crushing defeat suffered by the Army at Elephant Pass, in April, 2000. Jolted by the stunning battle-field defeat, undoubtedly the worst single debacle during the war, the PA administration appealed for a Israeli diplomatic mission. Much to Sri Lanka’s relief, Israel responded positively. Full diplomatic relations were established the following month. Interestingly, Shiv Shanker Menon, who had been India’s first ambassador to Israel, following the setting up of diplomatic ties, in 1992, was New Delhi’s High Commissioner here, in 2000. Kumaratunga sought Israeli ties in the wake of India declining to intervene in Jaffna to save nearly 40,000 security forces and police personnel. If not for the timely deployment of multi-barrel rocket launchers from Pakistan and Czechoslovakia in support of the besieged Army in the Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE would have finished off them.

The then Army top brass made a pathetic effort to call the loss of strategic Elephant Pass base as a tactical withdrawal. Had it being the case, the Kumaratunga administration wouldn’t have sought diplomatic ties with Israel in such haste. Having evicted the Army from Kilinochchi and Paranthan, the LTTE routed the 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass. The 54 Division commanded by Maj. Gen.K.B. Egodawela became the first and the only fighting Division to suffer the ignominy of defeat during the war.

The war took a turn for the worse with the Elephant Pass defeat. By then the LTTE had regained the entire area in the Vanni lost to the Army, since May, 1997, and was threatening to overwhelm the Jaffna peninsula. Resumption of diplomatic ties had been a key initiative of the PA in the wake of the LTTE threat.

Over six years, after the conclusion of the war, Israeli aircraft, ships and FACs remain in service. If the Opposition is really concerned about post-war stability, it shouldn’t hurt the feelings of those countries which backed Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE. Sri Lanka needs continuous Israeli cooperation unless the government intends to do away with Israeli arms, ammunition and equipment. Those playing politics with Israeli issue, here, should not forget that even Muslim states, including Egypt and Algeria, had obtained Israeli equipment.

The Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government should go ahead with its plans, regardless the Rajapaksa camp’s opposition. In fact, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Israel during the second week of January last year. He was accompanied by the then first lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa. They were in the Jewish state for their visit to three Middle East countries. Rajapaksa was the first Sri Lankan head of state to visit Israel since its inception. Among the government delegation was the then External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris.

The Sri Lankan delegation included, Monitoring MP of the Ministry of External Affairs Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, Parliamentarian Roshan Ranasinghe, Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga and Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Israel, Sarath Wijesinghe.

The Israeli side consisted of Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli National Security Advisor Yossi Cohen, Chief of National Information Directorate Liran Dan, Israel’s Non-Resident Ambassador to Sri Lanka in New Delhi Alon Ushpiz and Ambassador of Israel to the United States Ron Dermer. The presence of Dermer was significant against the backdrop of US going all out for a regime change in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa visit to Israel took place two months before the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a US resolution meant to conduct an external investigation into accountability issues during the war. Israel could have intervened on behalf of Sri Lanka. When the writer inquired at that time from a member of the delegation the outcome of Rajapaksa’s visit as well as the inclusion of Israel ambassador to the US in the delegation, he asserted that it shouldn’t be discussed. The writer was told media discourse could be inimical to Sri Lanka’s interest. At the conclusion of the talks, they said that in the area of agriculture, Israel agreed to provide technological assistance, including support to expand the scope of utilizing the drip irrigation system in Sri Lanka. (Israel is known for the drip irrigation technology that it invented for the agricultural sector to cope with the water crisis in the region) Another water-related technology that was discussed was desalination, a process through which potable water is produced from sea water.

Information technology and employment were other areas identified for strengthening cooperation between the two countries. At that there had been approximately 7,000 Sri Lankans working in Israel as caregivers. The two leaders agreed to work towards increasing employment in this sector as well as seasonal employment in agriculture. Israel pointed out that Israeli farmers were quite satisfied with quality of Sri Lankan employees working in the country.

Before the conclusion of the meeting, President Rajapaksa also thanked Israel for the tsunami assistance it provided.

Israel made financial donations and provided relief goods, food and clothing, field kitchens and a mobile medicine clinic for the Sri Lankan tsunami survivors.

The bottom line is that the Israeli assistance in the wake of tsunami didn’t amount to much. But, the war couldn’t have been brought to a successful conclusion without Israeli armaments and expertise. In fact, the LTTE could have succeeded in dividing the country on ethnic lines years if the US stopped Israeli support.