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De-Hyphenating Israel From Palestine: India’s New Policy


by Shakeel Maqbool & Mumtaz Ahmed Shah
India’s Middle East foreign policy has been on a road to de-hyphenating Indo-Israel relations with that of its support for Palestinian self-determination. The question that arises is how much India’s Israel policy was hyphenated with Palestine and why? The answer to this question has to be found in the trajectory of historical engagement of India with Arab-Israeli conflict.
India’s Palestine policy has been influenced by among others factors, Indian national freedom movement and non-aligned policy. The case against colonialism and racism was expressed by Indian leadership in universal terms as they spoke for the end of colonialism everywhere. There was also a clear position of Indian National Congress (INC) that Independent India would stand for democracy, constitutionalism, pluralism and individual freedom. In contrast, Zionist movement which gained sympathy in the Christian world in the face of the plight of Jews in Germany relied on imperialist powers for their cause.
At that time Gandhi said that Palestine is not an empty land waiting for Zionist to settle and it was wrong and inhumane to impose the Jews on the Arabs. Indian leadership believed that it was unfair what the Zionists are doing behind veil of British colonialism against Arabs. Although the Indian leadership stand was guided by ethical values, but it also came to associate with an INC policy of using Palestine factor to serve domestic Hindu-Muslim unity. On the other hand right wing groups saw Israel as a means to express their anti-Muslim agenda.
Also to counter Pakistan’s quest for creating a Pan-Islamic alliance with Middle Eastern states, India put its bet on valuing friendship with secular regimes of the Arab world especially the regimes of Egypt and Syria. These secular regimes also took a pro-India stand on Kashmir. Furthermore, India and Arab republics were users of Soviet Union military hardware, which added Soviet factor to India’s Middle East policy.
With the 1967 Arab-Israel war, Israel came to control all historical Palestine which was in 1948 divided by the United Nations between Arab and Jews. India’s public position was that Israel should withdraw from the Palestinian territory captured in the war. India also supported the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a representative of Palestinian nation.
However the international climate in 1990s changed in favor of Israel as both capitalism and US were victorious from the ideological and geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union. The international criticism that US was quick to mobilize its military might against Iraqi occupation of Kuwait but defends Israeli occupation, led to US sponsored Arab-Israel peace process. With the beginning of the peace process, India normalized its relations with Israel in 1992. Although the Oslo Peace Process failed to end the occupation or pressure Israel to stop settlements activities, India has not looked back since then. Many in India argued that we cannot afford to go back, as India cannot be more pro-Arab than Arabs.
At the time there was no Indian Muslim outcry against this decision as it was a period when communal tensions were at their highest. The Muslim political representation was falling and political right was on rise. The Arab world was also divided on sectarian basis and Saudi Arabia led camp had come realize that Israel is the counterweight against the rising power of Iran. Israel has also offered to India, military technology, which other states were not willing to share at that time.
Subsequently, the BJP led government of AB Vajpayee tried to de-hyphenate India’s Palestine policy from its relations with Israel. There was now a high level of political engagement. When world was reluctant to invite Israeli PM Shimon Peres for alleged role in massacre of Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982, India opened the red carpet for him in New Delhi in 2003. A decade of INC led United Progressive Alliance was also marked by highly robust bilateral relations with Israel.
However in UN, India continued to support Palestinian cause, for example, its vote in favour of Palestinian membership in United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and non-Member Observer State status in the UN.
When BJP came back power in 2014, the ties with Israel witnessed a colossal shift. India left behind its reluctance to openly engage with Israel at the highest level. Both President and Prime Minister made their maiden visits to Israel. PM Modi even visited the grave of Theodre Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement. India also abstained when Israeli policies in occupied territories were discussed in UN. This led to criticism that India has abstained from its decades long principled stance on Palestine.
To balance his clear pro-Israel tilt, PM Modi made a high profile visit to Palestine in February 2017. The visit was also utilized to make it visible that India has fully de hyphenated Israel and Palestine policy. He reiterated India’s support for Palestine but avoided any reference on status of Jerusalem which has become a controversial issue since the US decision to shift its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
To conclude, India has elevated marginal status of Israel since 1992 to a strategic level partner. The Indo-Israel political process has become a normal diplomatic activity and decisions in the UN and its bodies pertaining to Israeli policies in occupied territories are taken to strike balance in relations rather taking sides. Therefore, when it comes to criticism of Israeli policies in occupied territories, India has begun to follow abstention which many European states do and when it comes to define the status of occupied territories, it has begun to go along with the majority of states, as it did in December 22, 2017 in response to the US decision on changing status of Jerusalem. Thus, in the light of history and current developments it can be said that India’s Palestine policy is not derived from some principle of fairness but from the pragmatic rationale of national interest.
Shakeel Maqbool is an officer in the Ministry of Finance, Government of India, besides having a Research Fellowship in Political science, and Mumtaz Ahmed Shah is pursuing PHD in International relations from IIT Madras, India
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