India’s Tightrope Walk between Israel and Palestine

by Shaurya Dev - 4 June, 2021, 12:00 1671 Views 0 Comment

Amidst the COVID pandemic, one event that caught the attention of the world has been the escalation between Israel and Palestine. What seems to have begun from a clash in a neighbourhood was headed to the brink of a full-fledged war and cost more than 100 lives including almost 30 children. World leaders called for de-escalation and restrain in the region. While some states and the United Nations have done that taking into consideration the humanitarian disaster it could lead to, others have stated their support for one of the parties in the conflict and have made it clear that they put their weights behind Israel or Palestine. US President Biden clearly stated his staunch support to Israel as he said, “Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.” The Arab World has sided with Palestine and its right to legitimate statehood. Countries like China, Russia, and Japan have all condemned the airstrikes while urging both countries to work towards de-escalation of tensions.

India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti put forth India’s stand stating how India is deeply concerned with the clashes and violence and has called on both sides to avoid changing the status-quo on the ground, suggesting adherence to the UNSC resolution 2334 and commitment to the two-state solution.

India’s Relations Amidst the Conflict

Israel and Palestine have had a long-drawn history of territorial dispute and conflict. There have been several vain attempts to resolve this intractable conflict. The two-state solution was one such attempt that envisioned both states alongside each other on the proposed “1967 borders”. Diplomatic efforts have been taken by several countries in summits and negotiations. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 which was adopted on 23rd December 2016 stated that the ongoing expansion and occupation of Palestinian land by Israel was illegal. This sent a strong message across the world and was widely welcomed by the international community albeit the Israeli authorities did not consider this a binding solution, let alone take any action for it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been stringent on his expansionist actions and seems in no mood to stop his current revengeful airstrikes on Hamas.

India has always been carefully balancing on a tightrope walk between Israel and Palestine. Historically India has been vocal for the Palestinian cause as it has been for all anti-colonial struggles across the world. India was the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), led by Arafat as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Full diplomatic relations were established between the two countries in March 1980 and India further recognised Palestine’s declaration of statehood in 1988. These relations have since then deepened and the leadership of both countries has actively tried to further enhance these ties. Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh while hosting President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 remarked, “India believes that the solution should be based on the relevant UN Resolutions, the Arab Peace Plan and the Quartet road map resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine living within secure and recognised borders, side by side at peace with Israel.” India, while emerging as a champion of Palestine at the global stage over the years has also provided several million dollars as aid to the emerging state. In 2018 Prime Minister Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Palestine where he signed six agreements worth US$ 50 million including MOUs on infrastructure, education, information and trade. During the visit, Palestine conferred upon Prime Minister Modi ‘Grand Collar of the State of Palestine’ for his leadership efforts to promote the historic relations between the two countries and in acknowledgment of his support to the cause of Palestine.

India has kept a good hand with Israel as well since its recognition as a state in 1950. Although India seemed hesitant in establishing complete diplomatic ties with Israel fearing the loss in the support from Muslim voters domestically and the Arab countries internationally. With the opening of the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv in January 1992, full diplomatic relations were established and since then the relations have grown manifold between India and Israel, owing primarily to their common strategic interests and security threats. India, under Prime Minister Modi, has increased its proximity to Israel, with him becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in 2017 when the two countries upgraded their relations to a ‘strategic partnership’. India is Israel’s largest market for defence equipment and technology, making Israel the second-largest source of defence equipment for India, after Russia. India is an important trade partner for Israel with bilateral trade of US$ 5.24 billion in 2019, diversified into multiple sectors including Intelligence, Space, Agriculture, Oil, Natural Gas, and Tourism.

Whose side is India on?

India’s tilt towards Israel over the past few years has slightly been evident as we may say at the end of the day ‘Money matters’ and Israel has grown to be a key trade partner and a big thrust to India’s growing need for defence equipment for which the government of India spends 2.5% of its GDP. Though India continues to support the Palestinian cause in spirit, its actions now are more pragmatic and expedient and hence it seems to only pay lip service to their cause. In these times of hyper-nationalism, government policies are increasingly getting inward-looking, and putting the country’s needs first has become important. Hence naturally the Modi government finds engaging with Israel at multiple levels more profitable and rewarding for India.

After the 2014 Israel- Gaza conflict India joined the BRICS countries to vote at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a probe into Israel’s human rights violation in Gaza, albeit when the report alleging Israel of committing war crimes was tabled for a vote at the UNHRC, India artfully abstained from voting for which the Israeli ambassador in Delhi thanked India. In 2019 India in an unprecedented manner sided with Israel by voting in favour of its resolution to deny observer status to ‘Shahed’ a Palestinian human rights organisation at the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Though India made it clear to the world that its West Asia policy was independent and not influenced by its increasing inclination towards Israel or the USA when India voted in favour of a resolution in UN opposing the US decision of recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This stand made it clear that though India’s head might be towards Israel, it would not support brute force and power being used in conflict resolutions which should otherwise happen through bilateral dialogue.

India’s own territorial conflicts with Pakistan could be another reason why India is now siding with Israel, a vocal supporter of India’s stand on Kashmir. Israel has over the years helped India by providing several smart combat equipment and technology, which were put to use during the Kargil War and even in the Balakot strikes. A key system that India has bought from Israel is the Comprehensive integrated border management system, which India has set up all along the India-Pakistan border ensuring stringent surveillance.

Earlier India’s relation with Israel was laden with hypocrisy as India reached out to Israel but never really embraced it, fearing that this would anger the Indian Muslims and could bitter relations with the gulf. The tide seems to have shifted as India now seems to have such a hypocritical relation with Palestine, as the Modi government no longer shies away from embracing Israel, quite literally as the warm hugs and bonhomie between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Netanyahu remained a spectacle for the world.

India’s foreign policy for almost six decades since independence was anti-apartheid, anti-west, anti-capitalist, etc. but was not sufficiently pro-India. With a pro-India foreign policy, what happens in the rest of the global political sphere and the position India takes in the rest of the world is now defined by what is in India’s supreme interest. India yet needs to strike that balance between increasing trade interests and the moral humanitarian and anti-imperial voice it staunchly raised over the years.

Shaurya Dev
Author is currently in final year of B.A. (Hons) Political Science from University of Delhi. He has a keen interest in International Relations and Foreign Policy. He has served as the Secretary of The Political Science Society and have edited, 'The Dialogue', the Political Science Department Magazine.

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