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Diplomatic Balance: Modi Government Has Made De-Hyphenation Crux Of Israel-Palestine Policy

In 1988, India was one of the first countries to recognise the Palestinian state. Over the years, however, India also moved closer to Israel and the United States. Now, India seeks to balance its growing ties with Israel and long-standing support for the Palestinian people and the two-state solution.

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India’s nuanced position on Israel’s Gaza War is not surprising as it struggles between its historical support for the Palestinian freedom movement and its now-growing ties with Israel and the United States. Much of this has to do with the changing security and international environment, and India abandoning its former high moral ground on global issues to a more pragmatic foreign policy that serves the country’s self-interest. At the same time, India wants to be the leader of the Global South and does not wish to cede the space to Asian rival China. 

On November 21, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa hosted a virtual BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and now joined by Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) summit, to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. This was a day before the prisoner swap deal was announced. In a clear indication that New Delhi did not wish to be seen as ganging up against Israel, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not attend the summit. He was represented by Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“This shows that India is taking a position on Israel’s genocide differently from the rest of the BRICS countries. India’s support of Israel detracts from its claim to the leadership of the Global South. When women, children, journalists, hospitals, schools and refugee camps are bombed, India, true to its principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, should have called for a ceasefire,” says K P Fabian, a retired Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer.

All leading members of the group who attended the summit called for a ceasefire. Jaishankar placed both sides of the story effectively. “…there is an urgent need to ensure that humanitarian aid and relief effectively and safely reach the population of Gaza,” he said. In the same breath, he added that “hostage-taking is equally unacceptable and cannot be condoned”.

Not everybody agrees that there is any major shift in India’s stand on Palestine. “India’s approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has evolved with the evolving nature of the conflict over the decades. In the ongoing war, India has been critical of Hamas’ October 7 attack and has called it an act of terror. At the same time, it has supported the call for an early resolution and an end to the fighting. It continues to support a two-state solution, while maintaining strong ties with Israel and continuing its developmental support to the Palestinian Authority (PA),” says Muddassir Quamar, associate professor at JNU’s Centre for West Asian Studies. India’s own experience with terrorism in Kashmir and the Mumbai terror attacks have shaped its views on Hamas attacking unarmed civilians in Israel.

“India’s position is more or less in line with the view we have taken on the Israel-Palestine issue in the recent past. There is no major diversion or course correction,” says analyst Prasanta Pradhan of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He points to the “de-hyphenation of ties” that the Modi government has introduced. So while India looks to Israel for security, hi-tech and anti-terror cooperation, it has not diluted its position on a two-state solution. 

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India’s Pro-Palestine Stand

As is well known, India recognised the State of Israel as early as in 1950, but did not have full diplomatic ties till 1992. In the decades following 1947, support for the Palestinian cause was firmly entrenched in not just the government, but among common citizens also, as the anti-imperialist sentiments against former colonial rulers were widely supported. India, as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), continued to solidly back Palestine.
India was the only non-Arab nation to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) of Yasser Arafat in 1974 as the sole and legitimate representative of the people of Palestine. The PLO was given space and allowed to operate an office in Delhi. In 1988, India was one of the first countries to recognise the Palestinian state.

But over time and especially after the Oslo accords of 1993 failed to resolve the Palestine-Israel issue, the enthusiasm for the Palestinian struggle gradually disappeared not just around the world, but also in the region where Arab countries were distracted by other developments. India’s enthusiasm also waned as the Cold War ended and New Delhi had to adjust to a changing world order. Yet the two-nation theory remained integral to India’s policy on Palestine.

The economic reforms of 1991 and Congress Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s pragmatic politics led to the upgrading of ties with Israel in 1992, and improved relations with both the United States and the Western world. The signing of the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement led to a paradigm shift in India’s relations with the United States, making India one of America’s close non-NATO partners. The move, which began during the Vajpayee years, continued through the two terms of Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and further accelerated since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to office in 2014.

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Ties with Israel also expanded rapidly, especially under Modi, who became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in 2017. He was given a hero’s welcome by Benjamin Netanyahu. India’s political, economic and defence ties have flourished since then. Israel is now India’s second-largest defence supplier. Ideologically too, the BJP, the RSS and those in the Hindutva fold have always supported the Zionists as opposed to the Muslim Arabs.

“Some have argued that Modi BJP’s brand of Hindu nationalism and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and its alliance with the far-right ultranationalists have a common ethno-national, anti-Muslim ideology that has drawn the two countries closer together,” notes Manjari Chatterjee Miller in a blog for the Council on Foreign Relations, Boston, USA. She writes that Prime Minister Modi’s response to the October 7 Hamas attack, condemning it and supporting Israel within hours shows the transformation of New Delhi’s ties with Israel.

Unlike during Russia’s war on Ukraine, when India was not in step with the US and Western democracies and refused to condemn Moscow at the UN, New Delhi’s position on Israel is perfectly aligned with the United States.

The support for Israel was apparent when India abstained from voting against a resolution on October 27, calling for a pause in the fighting, and to allow humanitarian assistance for Gaza’s civilians. This was a non-binding resolution tabled by Jordan and the Arab League at the UN General Assembly. The Global South, including India’s South Asian neighbours, all voted for this. Both South Africa and Brazil, leading members of G20, have recalled their envoys from Israel in protest against the killing of civilians in Gaza. India cannot afford to allow China to grab the space of speaking for the developing world, so it will have to balance its strategic interests with Israel, while also mouthing the Global South’s aspirations. But India, especially since Modi came to power, has also assiduously built ties with the Arab world. New Delhi and the Gulf sheikhdoms have close economic and commercial interests. It is a tough manoeuvre, but New Delhi has done it before over Ukraine and Russia and can do it again.

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