Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gifted Prime Minister Narendra Modi a beautiful piece of artwork with his name inscribed in Arabic, an acknowledgment of the fact that Modi, although he is excavating Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy and intimate support for Palestine in favour of Israel, has the energy and bandwidth to at least try and change the game in a revamped world order.
Truth is, President Abbas’s visit to India is a kind of inverted curtainraiser to Modi’s Israel visit on July 5-6 — the first time ever that an Indian Prime Minister would be visiting the country that New Delhi had voted against at the United Nations in 1948. The brand new state had been carved out of Palestine, and India was a friend of its fellow underdog.
It took another 54 years, across the thrust and parry of the Cold War decades, for New Delhi to establish full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, in 1992. J N Dixit, India’s larger-than-life foreign secretary, persuaded then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to overcome opposition in his own Congress party, while he singlehandedly dismantled the outdated modes of thinking in South Block that had kept the two nations apart through the preceding decades.
Something similar has been happening in New Delhi these last few years with Modi at the helm, albeit with much less finesse and almost no conversation. So, while the Ministry of External Affairs should be applauded for recently feting leaders of historically hostile pairs of nations — like Cyprus and Turkey in the same week and now Palestine and Israel over the next two months — the fact is that the Abbas visit is probably much more diplomatic armour and much less beef.
Modi, of course, said all the right things to Abbas, with the requisite panache. India offered its “unwavering support” to the Palestinian cause and said it wanted to see a sovereign Palestine co-existing with Israel, reiterating the 2-state formula that has been in vogue at least since the early 1990s — well before Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak attempted reconciliation at Camp David in 2000.
The fact that Abbas came to New Delhi after meeting with Donald Trump, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Vladimir Putin — the Presidents of the United States, Germany and Russia — gives Modi the opportunity to signal to India’s Muslim population that he and the Arab world are friends. After all, he visited both Saudi Arabia and Iran in 2016, hosted the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, for this year’s Republic Day, and has now received Abbas.
According to Talmiz Ahmad, a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and India’s ranking Arab expert, Modi’s enthusiasm in reaching out to the Arab world must be welcomed. “India’s relationships with Palestine and Israel are totally separate, and should be weighed on their own merits. The former is about principled support for a cause; the latter is based on national interest,” Ahmad said.
Manish Tewari of the Opposition Congress, who recently visited Tel Aviv and the West Bank city of Ramallah, believes moves are under way on both sides to give momentum to the peace process. India must assist the Palestinians in whatever way it can, should they seek assistance, Tewari said.
Indeed, Indian diplomats argue that in a fast-changing world, long-term strategy must be balanced against the need for more immediate tactics. In the first years after Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru realised that Non-Alignment was a good way not to take sides in the Cold War; he also shaped Non-Aligned Movement to give India a much bigger international profile than a poor, struggling nation might have otherwise got.
But in today’s world of brisk give-and-take among the great powers, it is in India’s interest to engage with several partners at the same time. That is why, analysts say, it is a mistake to treat Palestine and Israel as conjoined twins.
“Modi has succeeded in de-hyphenating the relationship between Palestine and Israel. This is the correct thing to do. The approach to zero-sum diplomacy is wrong for a middle power like India. Middle powers don’t have zero-sum approaches to diplomacy,” Ahmad said.
India’s economic ties with Palestine are so poor that they don’t bear recounting. India has probably committed $ 30-40 million towards Palestine’s developmental requirements. With Israel, on the other hand, defence and intelligence cooperation is monumental. After Russia and the US, Israel is India’s third-largest defence supplier — certainly, India is Israel’s largest defence client.
India recently signed three defence deals with Israel amounting to $ 3 billion, which included the acquisition of 164 targetting pods to be used by the Indian Air Force, and a number of precision-guided bombs. Israeli avionics have been routinely used on Russian defence hardware that is sold to India.
Rajesh Rajagopalan, professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said he is surprised that the Modi visit to Israel did not happen earlier, considering the BJP has always looked at Israel with awe and admiration. At a meeting in Surat some weeks ago, Modi told the crowd, “I am soon going to Israel. In fact, I am the first Prime Minister to go to Israel, and I am going there on your behalf. You have trading relations with that country.”
Certainly, no such affection has been displayed towards Mahmoud Abbas. Modi’s statement welcoming the dignitary is said to be among the shortest he has made since he came to power. “The Palestinian President’s visit was perhaps something of a cover to make sure the Opposition didn’t criticise him too much at home before he went to Israel. Probably he was advised to wait until the UP elections got over,” Rajagopalan said.
With UP under his belt and no political challenge in the foreseeable future, the Prime Minister believes he can be the undisputed master of India’s foreign policy. With the Abbas visit done, it’s time for Israel. The Prime Minister’s social media team could be already composing his tweets in Hebrew.