Addressing a public meeting arranged by the Indo-Arab Friendship League on January 28, 1978, then External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked the Non-Aligned Movement and all those who believed in peace and justice in the world to “raise their voice in protest against the injustice being meted out to Palestinians”.
Vajpayee reiterated that India would continue to protest Zionist attempts to usurp Palestinian land. Despite Vajpayee’s roots in the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which was perceived to be pro-Israel, and that party’s merger in the Janata Party, there was no change in India’s traditional policy towards Palestine under the Janata government.
So, when Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan made an unofficial visit to India on August 14, 1977, Prime Minister Morarji Desai advised him, “You must make peace with the Arabs. The Israelis have suffered from the Nazis and from the persecution in Europe, but the Palestinians should not be made to pay for it.” (Breakthrough: A Personal Account of the Egypt-Israel Peace Negotiations: Moshe Dayan, Random House, 1981)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi lands in Ramallah on Saturday, he will have with himself the memories and lessons from India’s diplomatic engagement over the decades with Israel and Palestine, the principal actors in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
India’s position on Palestine has been guided by the general consensus in the Arab world, the Non-Aligned Movement and the United Nations. It has been clear which side it stands — voting against the partition plan at the UN, as well as Israel’s application for admission to the world body. New Delhi did, ultimately, recognise Israel on September 17, 1950, following the lead given by two Muslim-majority countries, Turkey and Iran. In 1953, Israel opened a consulate in Mumbai, but was still denied diplomatic presence in New Delhi.
On the other hand, India became, on January 10, 1975, the first non-Arab country to recognise Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and permitted it have an independent office in New Delhi.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the PLO lost political leverage in the region on account of its support to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. With the Soviet Union disintegrating, the United States wrested the initiative in the region, holding an international Middle East Peace Conference immediately after expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.
In the changed situation both at home and in the Middle East, India established full diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1992, over 40 years after it recognised that country. New Delhi’s move was perceived to be timely in the context of the Oslo Peace Treaty of 1993. The Cold War’s end had weakened NAM and reduced the ideological hostility towards Israel. This was also the time when India was opening up its economy to the world, and the BJP, with its lack of inhibition about Israel, was emerging as a powerful political force.
Since then, successive governments have followed a policy of strengthening the relationship with Israel, while maintaining diplomatic support for the Palestinian cause. But the scales may now be tilting.
“Even though the Congress-led and BJP-led governments have been adopting a pro-Israeli approach under the grab of the so-called policy of equidistance, there are significant differences between the two in terms of nuances, symbolism, profile and level of engagement with Israel; the BJP-led government has been more open, vocal and ideologically abrasive. This trend is likely to intensify and get consolidated under the new dispensation,” Bansidhar Pradhan of the Centre for West Asian Studies in JNU, wrote in a paper, India, Palestine and Israel: The Tilting Balance, in 2017. “This”, according to Pradhan, “has titled the balance in favour of Israel rather decisively. Because even an equidistance policy in a highly asymmetrical conflict, such as the one between Palestine and Israel, would favour the stronger party”.
Last May, Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas made his fifth visit to New Delhi since succeeding Arafat in 2005, and the first after Modi became Prime Minister. The leaders had earlier met in September 2015 at the UNGA. Modi had met his Israeli counterpart at the UNGA the previous year, and visited Israel in July 2017. Benjamin Netanyahu visited India recently, and the bonhomie between Modi and him has always been visible. On this visit, Modi will land in Jordan and reach Ramallah by chopper — by making his trips to Israel and Palestine “complete standalone” visits, he is signalling a “de-hyphenation” of the relationship.
Despite the history of Indian support to Palestine, the relationship has seen some uneasy moments. After the 2002 riots, Arafat was forced to recall his envoy Khalid al-Sheikh after he attended a forum that condemned the violence in Gujarat. More recently, a Palestinian envoy in Pakistan attended a rally in Rawalpindi along with Mumbai terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed. He too was recalled after New Delhi expressed concern.
As India elevates its strategic partnership with Israel in areas such as defence, security, agriculture, water management and innovation, New Delhi and Ramallah must tread carefully in their own relationship, which must forge a path independent of India-Israel ties. As the US administration under President Donald Trump adopts a harder pro-Israel line, India, with its vote in the UN on the issue of Jerusalem, has demonstrated the willingness and capability to follow its own geopolitical and pragmatic interests.