India must not forget its historic support for Palestine

India must not forget its historic support for Palestine
Comment: India has traditionally been an ardent advocate of Palestinian rights. It must not allow closer ties with Israel to endanger this, writes Fazzur Rahman.
5 min read
15 Jan, 2018
Netanyahu arrived in Delhi on Sunday for his six-day trip [AFP]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to India began on Sunday, when he was warmly received by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the tarmac of the airport in New Delhi.

In contrast to the visit of late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2003, there was calm on the streets. Protests by Muslims and civil society members were minimal, with just a few sloganeering against the visit.

Instead much of India's popular media reported enthusiastic crowds, who see in Netanyahu a saviour in India's "war against terrorism". This high profile six-day visit takes place six months after Modi's visit to Israel in July 2017, the first ever visit by an Indian prime minister to the country.

In the 25 years since India established its diplomatic ties with Israel, the two nations have evolved close strategic ties and trade volume ballooned from US$200 million in 1992, to US $4.16 billion in 2016.

Today, India is the largest importer of Israeli arms in the world and according to one estimate, Israel sells 41 percent of its total arms to India.

But the relationship is not confined to arms and ammunition. Israel is extending full cooperation to India in the fields of agriculture, renewable energy, water purification technology, solar energy, health care, science and technology, and perhaps most significantly in the arena of counter-terror.

During the visit the two sides are expected to sign nine major deals.   

Traditionally, India has been an ardent advocate of Palestinian rights. It has adhered to the dictum preached by the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who famously stated that, "Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French." It has always claimed that deepening ties with Israel will never affect India's historic bond with the Palestinians.

Trade volume between India and Israel ballooned from US$200 million in 1992, to US $4.16 billion in 2016

But a lot has changed in recent times, as new political parties have come to power. Both the ruling party (BJP) in New Delhi and Likud party in Tel Aviv believe in the philosophy of ideological state.

When Prime Minister Modi visited Israel in July 2017, he skipped Ramallah, showing government determination to de-hyphenate relationship between Israel-Palestine.

Moreover, in the joint statement, there was no mention of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine; a major departure from past policies.

But evidence of a change in India's stance has been building. In 2015 and 2016, India abstained on a UN resolution criticising Israel for bombardment of Gaza, and in voting at UNESCO it did the same thing in 2016.

India's voting record at the UN over the last three years indicates a clear departure from the the early phase, during which time India embraced the Palestinian narrative. The more recent phase has been marked by complete reversal.

The Indian government has occasionally tried to compensate for this pronounced shift, by raising the issue of Palestine at different global and regional forum.

The Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj at a Non-Aligned Ministerial (NAM) conference in September of last year, said that India's support for Palestine is a reference point in its foreign policy, and claimed that India's expanding ties in the region would naturally help the cause of Palestine.

On the occasion of last year's International Solidarity Day with the Palestinian People, Prime Minister Modi stated that India's vision for the creation of separate Palestinian state remains alive. India's vote at the UN against President Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel can be seen in the same light.

This is an era of real, hard and pragmatic politics

However, India's policy today reflects the fact that the time of political parties' longing for Muslim votes is a thing of the past. In recent years, there have been no major street reactions to any of India's overtures to Israel, and the abnormalities of the past appear to have become normality for today's bilateral relationship. 

This is an era of real, hard and pragmatic politics guiding the principles of international relations.

Moreover there is a general perception among the Indian political elites that Arab leadership has never reciprocated India's friendly gestures, siding instead with Pakistan. India's efforts to gain observer status at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation essentially failed because of the veto form Pakistan, which has dominated the body since its creation in 1969.

In addition to the changing political scenario at home, the fluid strategic map in the Arab region is also shaping India's evolving relationship with Israel.

Many nations in the Arab world are seeking closer ties with Israel, and the new, anti-Iran, Saudi Arabia-US-Israel trio is well known.

Prime Minster Netanyahu himself observed at UNGA meeting last year, that Arab views of Israel are changing very fast.

Many in India argue that if Egypt - a champion of the Palestinian cause for decades - can deepen its ties with Israel, India too should be able to further a partnership with Israel. 

The India-Israel relationship is problematic because of the implications for its traditionally strong support for Palestine. For moral and humanitarian reasons, India will never endorse Israel's policy of expansion in the West Bank, or the blockade of Gaza.

But there is another issue on which both nations would find it difficult to converge: India will never share Israel's animosity towards Iran.

India must tread carefully. If outright conflict in the occupied territories resurfaces, Israel cannot disown its responsibility.

No bilateral relationship is forged on the basis of emotion alone, mutual interest is always a determining factor. But India must not abandon its Gandhian legacy when it comes to the country's age-old attachment to the people of Palestine.

Dr Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui is a fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), a Delhi-based foreign policy think tank. His area of research is political Islam and Arab politics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @fazzurrahman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.