In half a century of travelling, and visiting about 50 countries, one has rarely felt as good as it did to be an Indian while travelling through Israel and Palestine. I met Yasser Arafat and Ezer Weizman, the then presidents of the two countries, but it was when I roamed the streets and bazaars that my eyes were opened to just how popular my country was.
Shopkeepers (mainly Arab) would insist on giving a discount, even refuse to take payment, and would point one to the best wares. (A vender in Jerusalem's old town souk insisted I buy a t-shirt, calling it "best quality". Indeed, I still wear it, 17 years later. Not a thread is loose.)
Not only did Palestinians remember with great regard Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's backing for their struggle, many young Palestinians had also studied in India and carried with them warm memories of welcome. On the other hand, Israelis too cherished their country's relationship with India, not simply for trade or strategic reasons, but for the fact that Jews, their religion, culture and properties, had been safe in the subcontinent for more than a millennium.
And India must build on this great twin asset. It is good that prime minister Modi met Palestinian Authority Chairman Mehmoud Abbas in May, and had such a grand visit to Israel over the last two days. Perhaps he could have gone to Ramallah this time too.
The British, who created the world's only two countries based solely on religion within the space of one year in 1947-48, have been acutely conscious of what their official papers call "the Muslim world". Particularly in light of current Chinese belligerence towards India, the government must do its best to keep intact — if not further build — relations with various countries with a Muslim identity.
Iran and Turkey are among the most vital of these. We need to carefully examine how to undo the trends represented by recent statements from those two countries' top leaders. A few days ago, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatullah Khamenei, publicly called for aid to Kashmiris, virtually backing militancy in the Valley. Just a few weeks earlier, Turkish president Recep Erdogan had offered to mediate between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue.
This is a troubling trend. Of course, the best way to have countered it would have been to reach out to Kashmiri youth over the past decade, giving them a sense of security, hope and proud acceptance with regard to the status quo. Having failed abjectly on that challenge, the govenment must tread very carefully on the world stage.
Relations with Israel — or with the US — need not be at the expense of relations with other countries. The middle path is best for a country of India's size, complexity, and internal challenges.
Any analysis that presumes that India chose to build relations with Israel instead of with Palestine when diplomatic relations opened 25 years ago needs to review what happened then. It was not either-or. It was not even a choice upon which India deliberately embarked. In fact, one could even say that the choice was made by the Palestinian authority rather than by India. A few months after PV Narasimha Rao became prime minister in June 1991, India's external intelligence agency RAW got wind of secret talks between the Israeli and Palestian authorities — which came to be known as the 'Oslo peace process'. Until then, Rao had been content to continue relations with only the Palestinian Authority.
Here is the version Mani Dixit, the then foreign secretary, recounted to me some years later: When Dixit walked into the prime minister's office with the RAW report, Rao asked him to invite Arafat to India. As before, Arafat was given a red carpet welcome at Palam airport but when meetings began, he was confronted with RAW's information. Arafat quickly agreed when he was told that India would now open diplomatic relations with Israel.
India still has the understanding of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people. However, the country needs to be cautious about how its external relations are perceived in other countries, particularly at this very challenging point. Great power brings great responsibility — not only towards the world around us, but also towards potential inheritors of India's current power and status.
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Updated Date: Jul 05, 2017 20:22:48 IST