A careful balancing act
India seems to be rationalising its West Asia policy with a tilt towards Israel although it continues to extend its support to the Palestinian cause apparently not to annoy the Arab World.
Considering that the question of Palestine is at the core of the Arab-Israel conflict, the Modi government is trying to balance its ties. As part of the new narrative, India is not only de-hyphenating its relationship with Israel vis-à-vis Arab world but also trying to balance and strengthen its relationship with both Palestine and Israel.
While hosting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is scheduled to visit Israel on July 5-6, assured the visiting leader of India's "unwavering support" to the Palestine cause.
Modi categorically told Abbas that India wanted to "see the realisation of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, coexisting peacefully with Israel," thus giving full support to the two-nation solution to the Palestinian problem.
With widespread domestic support for robust Indo-Israel ties, New Delhi seems to be changing and rationalising its template of West Asia policy by strengthening its partnership with the Jewish state, said Omair Anas, Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi.
This perhaps was the reason, he said, the Palestinian President wanted India to play a role in the Arab-Israel conflict.
The first indication of India's tilt towards Israel, observers say, came in July 2015 when it abstained from voting at United Nations Human Rights Council on alleged war crimes being committed by Israel as well as Hamas during the 2014 war which Israel termed as Operation Protective Edge. In 2016, India again abstained from voting on a similar resolution.
India also appeared to be wavering in its support to Palestine on the issue of East Jerusalem, which is under Israel's control. Palestine considers East Jerusalem as its capital.
The joint statement issued after talks between Modi and Abbas did not mention about East Jerusalem, unlike in the past when India has always spoken in favour of Palestine on the East Jerusalem issue.
Perhaps aware of India's tilt towards Israel, Abbas, when asked by reporters about the Prime Minister visiting Palestine, just said: "Prime Minister Modi is always welcome to visit Palestine, a country loved by hundreds of millions of Indians."
Some observers are of the view that while strengthening its ties with Israel, India should keep in mind that the Jewish state was an occupying power, as acknowledged by the United Nations because of its control over Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Syrian Golan Heights.
Modi's visit to Israel will be standalone. Most political visits from India to Israel also included Palestine. This indicates that the Prime Minister wants to make India's ties with Israel more transparent. Previous Indian governments were hesitant about deepening its relations with Israel fearing an adverse reaction from Muslims in India and the Arab world.
Prominent among those who visited both Israel and Palestine included L K Advani as Union Home Minister in 2000, Jaswant Singh, External Affairs Minister also in 2000, S M Krishna in 2012 and the current External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in 2016.
President Pranab Mukherjee paid state visits to Palestine and Israel in October 2015. This was the first ever visit by the President of India to both the countries, highlighting the importance India attaches to its relations with them.
Possibly not to upset the Arab world by going to Israel and to dispel the notion of a shift in India's policy vis-à-vis Palestine, Modi has paid very successful visits to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.
Since the NDA government came to power, cooperation between India and Israel has increased in defence and other sectors. Last month, Israel signed a 1.6 billion dollar deal with India to supply advanced missile defence systems bolstering bilateral military ties under a contract said to be the largest in Israel's defence industry history.
India's support to the Palestinian cause and its friendship with the people of Palestine have been an integral part of its time-tested foreign policy. In 1947, India voted against the partition of Palestine at the United Nations General Assembly. In 1974 India was the first non-Arab country to recognise PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. India was one of the first countries to recognise the State of Palestine in 1988. In 1996, India opened its Representative Office to the Palestine Authority in Gaza, which was later shifted to Ramallah in 2003.
While India has taken an interest in the West Asia peace process, it is unlikely that it will get involved directly in brokering a settlement between Israel and Palestine, which has been urging India to do so.
There have been regular bilateral visits between India and Palestine. Late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat visited India several times. President Abbas also came to India several times.
India has been providing material and technical assistance to the Palestine people. With the Indian government aid, two projects in the field of higher education namely Jawaharlal Nehru Library at the Al-Azhar University in Gaza City and the Mahatma Gandhi Library-cum-Student Activity Centre at the Palestine Technical College at Deir Al Balah in the Gaza Strip were completed. Under India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Forum's assistance, an indoor multi-purpose sports complex has been constructed in Ramallah.
During the visit of President Mukherjee to Palestine, India announced five more projects (worth $17.79 million). The projects include a Techno Park in Ramallah ($12 million), Palestine Institute of Diplomacy ($4.5 million), and India-Palestine Centre of Excellence in ICT in Gaza ($1 million).
India and Palestine signed five agreements after talks between Modi and Abbas. These included in the fields of agriculture, healthcare, youth affairs and sports, technology and electronics.
Since trade between India and Palestine is channelised through Israel, comprehensive trade statistics are not available. Limited data suggests that India-Palestine bilateral trade stands at around US$ 30 million. In terms of sectors, automotive spare parts, medical tourism, agro-products, textiles, fabrics, yarns, readymade garments, household appliances, stationery products, leather and leather products, agrochemicals, plastic products, sanitary wares, marble and granites, pharmaceuticals and engineering goods have vast scope in Palestine.
Apart from the trade of goods, there is broad scope for trade in services. India's prowess in IT and IT-enabled services; consultancy etc. is widely acknowledged in Palestine.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal.)
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