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Israel-Palestine conflict: India’s balancing act

India’s attitude and response towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have changed over time, more visibly and palpably since the arrival of Narendra Modi on the national scene. Though many of the changes happened during the tenures of the Congress-led governments in New Delhi, Modi added a personal touch and grandeur to the process after taking over as the prime minister in 2014.

At the end of World War II, in the United Nations, India proposed a federal plan when most other members suggested the partition of Palestine as the solution. Thus, in November 1947, India joined Arab-Islamic countries in opposing the partition plan and, a year later, even opposed Israel’s admission into the UN. However, disappointment over the pro-Pakistani position of Arab countries and compulsions of realpolitik prompted Jawaharlal Nehru to recognize Israel in September 1950. This was however not immediately followed by the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel.

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Credit: DH Illustration

Nehru was dissuaded by his education minister, Maulana Azad, about the negative implications of normalization due to concerns over Pakistan and the perceived opposition from the Muslim population within India. This began a peculiar recognition-without-relations policy that continued for over four decades.

The end of the Cold War and the emergence of a world order dominated by the United States were followed by Palestinian willingness to seek a negotiated settlement with Israel through the Middle East peace process. This resulted in another Congress leader, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, normalizing India’s relations with Israel in January 1992. This paved for bilateral cooperation in the military-security arena, steered by Sharad Pawar, who was still a key member of the Congress. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee hosted his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon in September 2003 and gave a most visible public display of friendship. The first foreign minister-level visit also took place during this time.

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P R Kumaraswamy.

Credit: Special Arrangement

Modi, however, added a personal touch to the India-Israel relations. As the chief minister of Gujarat, he had visited Israel in 2007 and had openly expressed admiration for the latter’s achievement. A spate of political contacts happened since Modi took over as the prime minister in 2014. In October 2015, Pranab Mukherjee became the first Indian president to visit Israel, and Modi also met Israeli officials in third countries, something the previous Indian governments avoided in the past. The climax came in July 2017 when Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. He avoided the usual Indian practice of making a balancing trip to Ramallah, the headquarters of the internationally recognized Palestine National Authority. Hence, his visit to Israel was seen by many as the de-hyphenation of India’s ties with Israel and Palestine. He has forged a close personal rapport with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and frequently exchanges messages and greetings.

Besides these political engagements, Modi brought about a subtle change in India’s position vis-à-vis the future Palestinian State. While hosting the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas just weeks before his Israel trip, Modi declared India’s support for a “sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel”. The decade-long reference to East Jerusalem being the capital of the future Palestinian State was missing. Likewise, the Modi government began abstaining from resolutions in the UN bodies that were one-sided or highly critical of Israel.

These not-so-subtle shifts are visible during the ongoing Israel-Gaza violence. As the horrors of the Hamas attacks on Israel were emerging, Modi was among the first world leaders to react. He expressed his shock at “the news of terrorist attacks in Israel”. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour,” he posted on X.

With violence raging, a few days later, the Ministry of External Affairs reiterated its traditional stand vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – support for the two-state solution. It was a subtle differentiation of the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority and Hamas; the latter does not believe in co-existence with Israel. Without branding Hamas as a terrorist organization, something several Western countries do, India was unequivocal in calling what happened in Israel “a terrorist act”.

(The writer teaches contemporary Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University).

(Published 20 October 2023, 21:28 IST)

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