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India-Israel relations: the changing scenario

India-Israel relations: the changing scenario

By Mythili Mishra

The Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza has been called “apartheid” and “colonialism” by supporters of a free Palestine. As Narendra Modi becomes the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, an assessment of where India stands in the fateful triangle between Israel, Palestine and the US must be made.

India’s initial inclination towards Palestine

The annexation of Palestinian territories in 1967 caused moral outrage in Indian political circles. Nehru recognised Palestine as a “free, independent Arab country”. Gandhi’s words described Indian empathy towards the Arabs: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.” He termed this colonialism a “crime against humanity”.

In the early years of independence, India supported a bi-national state in Palestine. This is similar to the two-state solution (which calls for partition and establishment of an independent Palestine) that it now pays lip service to. It denounced the actions of Israel and was vocal about anti-colonialism in the international sphere. As a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which espoused the same, India saw in Palestine its own past. For Professor P.R. Kumaraswamy from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, this support was also to win over Indian Muslims (as was earlier employed by Gandhi in the Khilafat movement) in a newly partitioned India.

While India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, bilateral relations were merely thawing. This is indicated by the symbolic act of Indian Prime Ministers refraining from visiting Israel. In United Nations resolutions as well as international discourses, India was careful to separate itself from the Palestinian issue, albeit less aggressively as history progressed.

Shifting geopolitical realities: India for Israel

After the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged as a global hegemon. The US is in a strategic partnership with Israel, which provides it access to the Arab nations, a base for its interventionist forces. Israel also serves as a base for US’ stronghold on the Middle East which is politically lucrative. India previously tried to keep Israel off the agenda as it edged towards the US. However, the Modi government seems to be reorienting its foreign policy.

In 2014, India abstained from a UN Human Rights Council vote on July 3 adopting the Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict which condemned Israeli military actions in Gaza. This was the first time India refused to vote against Israel, in consonance with the US which vetoes any Security Council resolution hurting the nation.

India’s current stance

Indian rapport with Israel stems from a close military partnership. India is the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment. Cooperation on defence has now spilt over to ideological and political cooperation.

The most notable aspect of Modi’s recent trip to Israel was his decision to skip a visit to Palestine. While India extends an “unwavering support for the two-state solution”, it has been, of late, de-hyphenating Israel and Palestine. This implies continued support for Palestinian independence while increasing collaboration with the entity that is blocking the former goal. These goals are contradictory in nature, as friendship with Israel (and the US) would mean distancing oneself from Palestinian freedom. While “the key to the White House lies in Israel”, India must introspect whether it would want the same key which locks several Arab subjects.

As India refashions itself as a potential superpower and no longer a former colony, it can have a greater say in deciding the fate of the occupied territories. No longer heavily dependent on Arab oil imports or seeking the support of Indian Muslims, India still supports the cause of a Palestinian state. However, it would not pursue this at the cost of a strategic friendship with Israel, which it has prioritised now.

Global stand on Israel-Palestine conflict

The Palestinian cause seems to have been losing its voice in a game where practical considerations outweigh moral ones. US President Donald Trump indicated withdrawing support for the two-state solution earlier this year. He also supported shifting the US embassy to Jerusalem. This would mean de facto recognition of the holy city as Israeli territory. It is currently under dispute, claimed by both sides, and exists as an international city.

The key actors have distanced themselves from Palestine. The region faces continuing occupation, the establishment of settlements, military operations, expulsions and home demolitions. There is discrimination against non-Jewish people in terms of access to education, healthcare and employment. 

Trump’s policies causing Islamic backlash from the Middle East should enhance support for the Palestinian cause. Further, Qatar supports Hamas, which fights for Palestinian independence. However, countries such as Saudi Arabia have cut off ties with Qatar, signalling continued friendship with the US. In this geopolitical context, West Bank and Gaza have become islands by themselves.

Featured Image Source: PMINDIA

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