By Seema Guha
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has began the new year with a visit to Palestine and Israel, ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the region later in the year. Modi will be the first Indian prime minister to travel to Israel. Swaraj’s visit will lay the initial groundwork for the prime ministerial visit.
Though the ruling BJP-led coalition shares a special warmth with Israel, the government has continued the Congress policy of walking the tightrope between Palestine and Israel. Much like what the American’s and other Western leaders did in the past with India and Pakistan. A trip to India also included a visit to Pakistan. Similarly every Indian leader makes it a point to visit both Israel and Palestine. President Pranab Mukherjee did the same last October. In fact the President spent a night in Ramallah.
Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, the strong pro-Israel lobby in India is hoping that the government will shed the UPA’s inhibitions and make a paradigm shift in India’s West Asia policy and veer decidedly towards Tel Aviv. The fact that India abstained from voting against a UN Human Rights Council resolution in July 2015 reinforced this belief, with many saying that the change had begun. Analysts concluded that this was a shift away from New Delhi’s traditional pro-Palestine stand, and the beginning of a more BJP oriented foreign policy. They forgot that in July 2014, when the new government was already in place, India had voted against Israel and in favour of the UNHRC resolution for an international inquiry report into the Gaza violence. A total of 2,300 people had been killed in Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza campaign. The external affairs spokesman Vikas Swarup had brushed off suggestions of any change in policy: "there is no change in New Delhi's long-standing position on support to the Palestinian cause".
He explained that the reference to the International Criminal Court(ICC), had persuaded New Delhi to abstain. India is not a signatory to the Rome Statute establishing the ICC, which has the mandate to try war crimes. "In the past also, whenever a Human Rights Council resolution made a direct reference to the ICC, as happened in the Resolutions on Syria and North Korea, our general approach had been to abstain."
It is perhaps true that given a choice, the current government would go all out in support of Israel. BJP as a party had always believed in a strong nationalist government, which punishes every attack against Israel with tremendous fire power. This is exactly what hardliners within the party would like India to behave with terror attacks from Pakistan soil. While in opposition this was the BJP’s grouse against the Manmohan Singh government, when they ridiculed him for his weak-kneed approach to Pakistan. However in government, and after the Pathankot attack, the BJP-led coalition is behaving with much more responsibility. The other factor is that despite Israel’s tough stand towards Palestine, attacks continue. It is not that the Palestinians have cowed under the massive fire power of Israel.
So despite the Modi administration’s affinity towards Israel, and the PM’s special equation with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, New Delhi refuses to completely tilt towards Israel. This is because international diplomacy is much more than pandering to anti-Muslim sentiments favoured by elements within the larger Sangh Parivar and personal or party preferences are secondary when in government. National interest takes prededence to all other considerations. India has traditionally backed the Palestinian cause, and had voted against the division of Palestine at the UN in 1947, but over the years the strong pro-Palestine stand was diluted as ties with Israel went on a fast track. Israel, with its cutting edge technology, and its sophisticated defence production base has become a major supplier of military hardware to India.
The upgrading of diplomatic ties with Israel was done by Congress prime minister PV Narasimha Rao in 1992. Since then there has been no looking back, and despite maintaining ties with Palestine, New Delhi’s relationship with Tel Aviv has flourished under both the BJP and the Congress. Yet hopes that India under the BJP government would re-calibrate its ties with Palestine has not happened. It is unlikely to do so, because India’s interests remain closely interwined with the Gulf states. Over five million Indian work out of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and other Gulf Co-operation Countries. The workers send back valuable foreign exchange to the tune of over $38 billion annually. The remittances help to fuel the economy of states like Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. New Delhi certainly does not wish to jeorpardize these gains.
India is also strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbours in recent years. It is no longer simply a question of buying oil from the region. There is much greater emphasis on doing business in the Gulf countries. Indian companies are also investing in the Gulf region. GCC exports to India have grown at an annual rate of 43 percent over the last decade, the highest rate with any major trade partner, making up 11 percent of the total GCC exports. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and UAE make up the Gulf Cooperation Countries, which are developing at a rapid pace and business with all these countries is expanding.
In the near future India is unlikely to change its policy towards Palestine despite a multi-faceted and fast growing ties with Israel. Sushma Swaraj’s visit to both countries reiterated the point again.