BJP-Israel love-in is out of step with history and world

Sangh Parivar's passion for Israel is almost legendary. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who coined the term Hindutva, famously hailed the creation of Israel as a "joyous" moment and publicly clashed with Mahatma Gandhi and other mainstream nationalist leaders for opposing the forced displacement of Palestinians to carve out a Jewish homeland.

So, it's not surprising that Narendra Modi, who had a much-advertised meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in New York recently, wants to "deepen and develop" closer relations with Israel. (Indeed it would have been surprising if he hadn't.) And nothing wrong with that. In today's globalised world with overlapping mutual interests the idea that we should not do business with a particular country for ideological reasons is outdated and makes no sense. But it doesn't have to be at the expense of one’s cherished morally-held positions. There's no reason why India can't have closer relations with Israel without diluting its principled stand on the Palestinians’ right to an independent statehood?

But more about it later. First a bit of context to what I'm saying. And the context is the momentum that the Palestinian campaign for statehood has gained in recent weeks. Last week, the British Parliament adopted a motion demanding that the government "recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel ". This came days after Sweden announced that it planned to recognise the Palestinian state on grounds that a meaningful dialogue between Israel and Palestine would be possible only when both sides dealt with each other as equals.

Several European states, including Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, have already recognised Palestine as a state. 
But amid all this, where is India, one of the Palestinians' oldest friends? Take the Israeli-Palestinian flare-up in July. The Indian Parliament failed even to adopt a resolution against Israel's use of disproportionate force in Gaza to punish Hamas for its admittedly short-sighted and foolish strategy of firing missiles at Israel. The government held both sides equally responsible for the violence though, of the more than 2,000 people killed in the seven-week-long Israeli Operation Protective Edge, between 69 -75 percent were Palestinian civilians, among them many children, according to the UN and human rights groups.

In comparison there was much sharper criticism of Israel in many Western countries. Isn't it rather ironical that while the benighted West, the architect of the Palestine problem, is finally trying to reach out to the Palestinians, India ---the old comrade in arms--has almost vanished from the scene?

 BJP-Israel love-in is out of step with history and world

Israeli's PM Benjamin Netanyahu during the UN General Assembly. AFP

This disengagement has coincided with a flurry of moves for closer engagement with Israel giving the impression that India is over-eager to please Israel. As a bigger power, which has ambitions to take its place along side major global players, it is India that should be determining the terms of its engagement with Israel. And not the other way round. Especially at a time when under an increasingly intransigent and gung-ho Netanyahu is facing growing isolation internationally and even its traditional patrons have started to lose patience. It is Israel that is looking for new international partners and should feel under pressure. Not India.

If India is serious about its global ambitions it must learn to withstand pressures and counter pressures from rival interests. But here's the point: I believe what is happening has nothing to do with India's diplomatic skills, but is the result of half a century of ideological positioning by successive governments still trapped in the 1960s mindset when you were either aligned with the Soviet Union and the Palestine-style "anti-imperialist" causes it espoused, or you were in the American camp whose heart bled for Israel. Then there is, of course, India's domestic politics at play with the Left –liberal establishment championing the Palestinian cause and the Right --especially the RSS-- rooting for Israel.

To be fair, the Palestine policy of most countries around the world has historically been coloured by both Cold War positioning and pressures of domestic politics. Well, the Cold War is long over even if some of the rhetoric persists, and other countries have managed to find a way around domestic political tensions to frame a coherent response. And, the trend even in traditionally pro-Israel countries has been to move away from unqualified support for it. If anything, there is increasing and palpable irritation with Israel for its defiance of international opinion over building settlements on the occupied land; its continued blockade of the Gaza Strip; and its victimhood narrative.

There is a mood change even in America, the only country still in hock to the powerful Israeli lobby, amid growing concern at the highest level of Obama administration that the Muslim sense of injustice over Palestine is feeding Islamist extremism , and in turn fuelling anti-Americanism even among moderate Muslims.

In a sign of the Palestinian campaign's growing momentum and Israel's diminishing clout, 138 countries voted to give Palestine the enhanced status of a "non-member observer state" at the UN general Assembly in 2012. Apart from the USA only seven countries voted against the move. Even Britain chose to abstain rather than vote with Israel.

Last week's Commons motion in favour of recognising Palestine is significant. While not binding on the government, it is likely to increase pressure on it to revisit its policy of unequivocal support for Israel.  Although sponsored by a Labour MP, the motion was also backed by many Tories and was adopted by a margin of 274 to 12.The move has been hailed as being of huge symbolic significance in a country often accused of being too soft on Israel.

As The Observer newspaper noted it would "put Israel on notice that...it's apparently endless foot dragging on the question of equivalent Palestinian rights is no longer acceptable to a growing segment of British and European opinion ".
 Sir Alan Duncan, a former Tory minister, urged the political establishment to stop being "in hock" to Israel. Likening Israel's policies to apartheid-era South Africa, he said politicians were reluctant to criticise Israel for fear of losing political donations from Jewish groups.

A global disinvestment campaign—the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement-- by churches, universities and charities targeting Israeli companies that profit from doing business in Occupied Territories is gathering momentum, including in America. In Britain, the Church of England’s most senior decision-making body, the General Synod, voted to disinvest from “companies profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestine”. A host of professional bodies such as the Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine, which represents some of Britain’s most prominent architects, have also called for an economic boycott of Israel's construction industry to protest the building of Israeli settlements and the separation barrier in the Occupied Territories.

For the first time, the civil society and governments in many parts of the world seem to be moving in the same direction--namely seeking to  pressure on Israel to resume the stalled peace process and stop what The Observer described as its “foot-dragging’’. Finally the momentum is with the Palestinians. Only America stands between Israel and international isolation.

That brings us back to the question: where is India in all this? The fact is that New Delhi's creeping disengagement began while the UPA was still in power. After the UN vote there was expectation that the Manmohan Singh government would follow it up with some concrete measures such as raising the level of India’s diplomatic representation in Palestine. But nothing happened. At present it doesn't have a full-fledged Embassy there but only an Office of Representative of India, located in Ramallah. Given the Congress Party's historical association with the Palestinian cause such a gesture would been a nice legacy to leave behind besides boosting the Palestinians quest for full-fledged statehood.

Few would shed tears over the demise of the non-alignment movement which even at the time was a bit of a misnomer given that all its leading lights were firmly aligned with the Soviet bloc. But some of the values and causes it championed still remain valid and they should not be abandoned simply because they don't seem "cool" any more.

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Updated Date: Oct 18, 2014 17:43:30 IST