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India ready to push Middle East peace at Annapolis meet

By IANS

New Delhi : India Thursday said it would offer its “good offices” in the search for a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict at the Nov 27 global conference on the Middle East at Annapolis in the US to which over 40 countries have been invited.

“I am convinced that India, with its close ties with all the parties and countries including Israel as well as Iran, is well placed to offer its good offices in the search for a peaceful solution to the various crises in the region,” Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to West Asia Chinmaya Gharekhan said here at a seminar.

Gharekhan would be part of the Indian delegation at the conference that is expected to energise efforts to resolve the core issues — borders, security, settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees – that lie at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This is the first time India has been invited to a global conference of this scale on the Middle East peace process and is an acknowledgement of India’s unique role as a bridge builder, given its excellent ties with Palestinians and Arabs on the one hand and Israel on the other.

The invitation also underlines the increasing stature of New Delhi in the region that is home to a 4.5 million-strong Indian diaspora.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will, however, decide on who will head the Indian delegation to this crucial conference that is expected to energise the languishing peace process in the region.

“The invite came only Tuesday night when the prime minister was away to Singapore to attend the ASEAN summit. He will decide on who to represent India at this important conference,” Gharekhan told IANS.

Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed may head the Indian delegation to the conference at Annapolis in Maryland, a reliable source said.

Gharekhan was speaking on the sidelines of a seminar on West Asia, organised by the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank, in association with The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

The US has invited over 40 countries, including Saudi Arabia and Syria which have no relations with Israel, to the Annapolis conference which it hopes will launch substantial time-bound negotiations to end the six-decade Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“India thus could provide a model to the societies in West Asia,” the envoy said while underlining India’s unique status as a fully functioning democracy and a successful multi-cultural society.

“Indeed, this possible role has been emphasised to me by leaders in responsible positions in my conversations with them. It is in this spirit that India will participate in the Annapolis conference next week,” Gharekhan said in his valedictory address at the end of the two-day seminar.

Gharekhan also underlined India’s support for the Arab offer that envisages full normalisation of relations with Israel by all Arab countries in return for full withdrawal by Israel from all occupied territories.

“India supports and welcomes the Arab initiative,” Gharekhan, a senior diplomat who has also served as India’s permanent representative at the UN, said.

Underlining India’s “deep and abiding interest” in West Asia, Gharekhan stressed that India’s approach towards the region is not driven by oil as opposed to the policy of the rest of the world.

Nearly 4.5 million Indians live and work in the Gulf countries and contribute around $20 billion in remittances per annum. India also depends on 70 per cent of its energy imports from the countries of West Asia.

That’s why the rise of extremism and terrorism and the widening Sunni-Shia divide, exacerbated by the events following the American intervention in Iraq in 2003, is of vital concern to India, Gharekhan stressed.

“India, with its second largest Muslim population in the world, having a significant proportion of Shias, is understandably concerned,” the envoy stressed.

Gharekhan hoped that the conference would be “a genuine launching pad for intensive, meaningful and well-directed negotiations, covering all aspects, to be concluded in a definite time frame.”