India's West Asia policy rooted in diplomatic pragmatism, delicate balancing act between Israeli friends and Palestinian allies

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-nation tour to the Arab world from 9 to 12 February, his visit to Palestine will be the most significant. This visit, the first ever by an Indian prime minister, comes at a time when bilateral relations between India and Israel are on an extremely upward trajectory. Modi’s Palestine visit underscores the significance of India’s historic support to the Palestinian cause.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy: Twitter/vijayrupanibjp

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy: Twitter/vijayrupanibjp

As part of the Modi government’s declared policy of de-hyphenating New Delhi’s relations with Israel and Palestine, Modi will not visit Israel. Last year, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel on a standalone visit, but chose not to travel to Ramallah. When Modi became the prime minister in 2014, he began a policy toward Israel which came to be referred to as de-hyphenation, which meant that India’s ties with Israel would stand on its own merits, separate from New Delhi’s relationship with Palestine. In other words, it would no longer be India’s relationship with Israel-Palestine.

But as time progressed, India’s ‘pro-Israel’ voting pattern in some global governance bodies as well as growing personal bonhomie between Narendra Modi and Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to be interpreted as downgrading of India’s ties with Palestine. When Modi visited Israel in July, though, he went to Jerusalem but did not feel the need to balance it with a trip to Ramallah. However, it was seen in many Arab capitals as abandonment of India’s historic support to the Palestinian cause. Therefore, Modi’s forthcoming standalone visit to Palestine should be seen as a robust diplomatic attempt to silence the critics of his government’s Palestinian policy.

India has come a long way in acknowledging Israel and forming strategic partnership with it. India, which voted at the UN against the creation of Israel, instead suggested a ‘minority plan’ for a federal Palestine State with two separate autonomous regions for the Arabs and Jews. The Indian government only reluctantly recognised Israel in 1950; two years after the Jewish nation came into being.

However, that did not prevent Israel prime minister David Ben-Gurion from offering his support to Jawaharlal Nehru during India’s disastrous war with China in 1962. Again in 1971, then Israeli prime minister Golda Meir secretly supplied weapons when India was preparing for a war with Pakistan. In other words, India-Israeli ties for decades have been covert and behind-closed-doors, anchored in military and intelligence discussions.

It was former prime minister Narasimha Rao who established full diplomatic relations with Israel. Since then, ties have become better, but have not risen to their fullest potential. When the UPA government came to power in 2004, New Delhi again returned to being surreptitious about its strategic ties with Tel Aviv; India tried to push its ties with Israel underneath the carpet. But then came Modi in 2014; he brought the India-Israel ties in full public domain. Under his stewardship, India’s foreign policy establishment realised that forging close ties with Israel is not going to offend India’s Arab friends, as many of them have also transformed their ties with Israel.

Besides being the first non-Arab country to recognise Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, India was one of the first countries to recognise the Palestine State in 1988. In 2012, India called for Palestinian Statehood to be recognised by the United Nations. On his Palestine visit in October 2015, then president Pranab Mukherjee said “India’s solidarity with the Palestinian people and its principled support to the Palestinian cause is rooted in our own freedom struggle.”

Mahmoud Abbas. AFP

Mahmoud Abbas. AFP

When Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas visited India in May, Modi reassured him of India’s “unwavering” support towards the Palestinian cause. In late December, India upheld its support to the Palestinian cause by favouring a United Nations resolution condemning American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. It was a crucial vote just before Netanyahu’s impending State visit to India in January 2018. Many in New Delhi felt that it would cause embarrassment to Netanyahu, who is prioritising ties with India. But the Modi government went ahead with the vote.

As is often felt both by the left-leaning liberals and influential right-wing voices, India’s support to Palestine has not entirely been dictated by considerations of domestic politics, particularly its perceived reluctance to alienate considerably large Muslim minority. First of all, this assumption is very simplistic that India’s Muslims choose to vote on foreign policy issues. India’s electoral history clearly points that Indian voter does not care about foreign policy issues. In fact, New Delhi’s Palestine policy has been an essential component of India’s energy diplomacy with oil-rich Gulf countries, India’s Kashmir dispute with Pakistan as well as for ensuring the safety of the Indian diaspora in the Gulf countries.

And now, India’s diplomatic choices, including in West Asia, are being guided by shifting global geopolitics. India is not oblivious to China’s diplomatic initiatives towards the counties of West Asia. China’s growing global influence continues to rattle Indian policy makers. Beijing does not miss any opportunity to reiterate China’s commitment on the two-state solution. Addressing a United Nations Security Council quarterly debate on Palestinian question last month, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations said that the question of Palestine was at the core of West Asia peace, noting that the two-state solution was “the right approach”.

China also has a special envoy to West Asia, who is pushing the Chinese plan that seeks to achieve a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. The Chinese often claim that they are interested in helping find a solution that will ensure rights for the Palestinians and security for Israel. In December, Beijing hosted a symposium for Palestinian and Israeli peace advocates. Even though China’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mainly symbolic, can India afford to ignore this?

Moreover, the Modi government’s forceful counter-terrorism policy towards Pakistan has seen New Delhi once again seeking strong Arab support for the Indian case against Pakistan-backed terrorism by extending its support to the Palestinians. Recently, after Palestine’s ambassador to Pakistan Walid Abu Ali attended a Jerusalem-related rally organised by the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, along with the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack mastermind and global terrorist Hafiz Saeed, India was forced to register a strong protest with the Palestinian authorities. Resultantly, Palestine recalled its Pakistani ambassador.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants issued a statement saying, “The ministry considers the participation of our ambassador in Pakistan in a mass solidarity rally with Jerusalem held in Rawalpindi on Friday and in the presence of people accused of terrorism as an unintended mistake but not justified. Accordingly, the ministry decided directly, from the sovereignty of the President of the State of Palestine, to summon the Palestinian ambassador to Pakistan immediately.” Hence, India cannot afford to let the perception gain ground in Palestine and elsewhere in West Asia that New Delhi’s growing closeness with Tel Aviv is tantamount to abandonment of even the moral support to the Palestinian cause.

It is no secret that India-Israel counter-terrorism cooperation has grown substantially. But New Delhi is not unmindful of the fact that the nature and source of terrorism are not similar for both the countries. If Iran is viewed in Tel Aviv as supporting terrorism against Israeli interests, Iran is seen in New Delhi as of huge strategic importance to India, particularly for providing an alternative land access to Afghanistan and resource-rich Central Asian region. The opening of the Chahbahar port, giving Afghanistan a route to the sea bypassing Pakistan, is a shining example of India smartly balancing its relations with both Israel and Iran.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is slated for a State visit to India after Modi returns from his Arab tour. This diplomatic pragmatism does not remain a one-way street. Tel Aviv actively engages with Beijing, welcoming China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), while ignoring India’s concerns about China’s growing influence in South Asia. When Netanyahu describes India-Israeli ties a ‘marriage made in heaven’, it does not escape attention that he said the same thing to Xi Jinping about China-Israeli ties during his March 2017 visit to China marking 25 years of diplomatic relations. There is a feeling in Israel that BRI would spur new construction and urban development that would translate into more business for Israeli companies.

India allocated $4.5 million for establishing the Palestine Institute Diplomacy, which is likely to be inaugurated by Modi during his fvisit. New Delhi is also helping Palestine build a technology park in Ramallah. India is also among the handful of counties that has a mission in Ramallah. In 2016, India also pledged $1.25 million humanitarian assistance to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In view of US president Donald Trump’s decision of slashing American funds to UNRWA, India’s support to UNRWA is a clear reflection of New Delhi charting its own path in West Asia.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sees no sign of being resolved in the foreseeable future, the Modi government’s efforts to de-hyphenate between the two sides can be sustained without much difficulty.

The author is an assistant professor at the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. He is also the coordinator at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Jaipur.


Updated Date: Feb 05, 2018 16:30 PM

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