In a major departure from the past, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday said India hoped for “an early realisation of a sovereign and independent state of Palestine”, dropping any mention of a “united” and “viable” Palestine. He also did not mention East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, nor did he spell out “the two-state solution” — a departure he had made earlier, in May last year.
His carefully calibrated omission of a “united” and “viable” Palestine will be perceived as a radical change in India’s position, maintained for several decades. This was the first ever visit by an Indian prime minister to Palestine, and Modi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were seen embracing each other several times on Saturday. However, unlike his standalone bilateral visit to Israel, when there was a joint statement, there was no joint statement with Palestine, signalling lack of convergence on key issues.
With Abbas listening in by his side at the Al Muqataa — the Palestinian presidential headquarters — Modi said: “I have once again reassured President Abbas that India is committed to upholding the interests of the Palestinian people. India hopes for an early realisation of a sovereign, independent state of Palestine, living in an environment of peace.”
In May last year, when Abbas visited Delhi, Modi had said, “We hope to see the realisation of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel.” Similar formulation was used by then President Pranab Mukherjee in October 2015 and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in September 2012.
While “sovereign and independent” Palestine remains India’s position, the notion of a “united Palestine” has come under challenge — internal differences within the Palestinian leadership, Fatah and Hamas have led to a situation where, over the past decade, the Palestinians have been living under two political controls: the internationally recognised PNA headed by Abbas, whose authority is limited to the West Bank, and an increasingly isolated Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
By dropping the call for a “united Palestine”, Modi is finally reconciling India’s position to the “new ground realities” and the “facts on the ground” — perceived to be a win for the Israeli government.
While Modi did not mention the “two-state solution” — a repeat of the omission in May 2017 — he said, “We believe that ultimately the lasting answer to the Palestinian question lies in dialogue and understanding that finds its path to peaceful coexistence”. The mention of “peaceful co-existence” , however, doesn’t automatically endorse the two-state solution.
Abbas, however, mentioned the “two-state solution” as well as East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine in his statement. “I would like to reassert our commitment to political action and negotiations as a means of achieving our national goals to freedom and independence, in accordance with the two-state solution, along the lines of 1967 and the internationally legitimate resolutions, so that Palestine and Israel can co-exist in peace and security, provided that East Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Palestine,” he said.
The two leaders discussed US President Donald Trump’s move to officially recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as was evident from Modi’s statement that they exchanged views on “recent regional and global developments that have a bearing on the peace and security in Palestine and on the peace process.”
“India fervently hopes for peace and stability in this region. The cycle of violence and the burden of history can only be overcome through intensive diplomacy and farsighted vision. We know this is not easy, but we must continue trying, for there is too much at stake,” said Modi, who was conferred the Grand Collar of the State of Palestine — the highest honour given to foreign leaders.
Abbas acknowledged that the Indian leadership has always supported peace in Palestine. He said Palestine is always ready to engage in negotiations to achieve its goal of an independent state.
“We have never rejected negotiations; we have been and are still ready for negotiations,” Abbas said, adding that forming a multilateral international mechanism of many countries is the best way to sponsor negotiations. He asked India to facilitate the peace process with Israel.
“We rely on India’s role as an international voice of great standing and weight, through its historical role in the Non-Aligned Movement and in all international forum, and its increasingly growing power on the strategic and economic levels, in a way that is conducive to just and desired peace in our region,” said Abbas.
While Modi changed India’s position on the political front towards Palestine, he tried to strike the right chords.
First, he invoked India’s historical position to the Palestinian cause. “India and Palestine share a long and steadfast historical association that has withstood the test of time. Our support to the Palestinian cause has been a continuous thread in our foreign policy, unbroken, unwavering,” he said.
And then he recalled PLO leader Yasser Arafat, the first President of the State of Palestine — Modi’s first stop was a visit to Arafat’s memorial and museum. Calling him by the popular name, Abu Ammar, he said, “Arafat was a great leader and the role he has played for the freedom of Palestine. He was also a close friend of the Indian people.”
Praising the people of Palestine for showing “great tenacity and courage in the face of persistent challenges and adversity” and for their “steely resolve”, he said, “What you have done in the face of difficulties is truly admirable.”
The two sides signed agreements worth $50 million, including $30 million for setting up a super speciality hospital in Beit Sahur and $5 million for construction of a centre for empowering women.
Three agreements in the education sector, worth $5 million, and for procurement of equipment and machinery for the National Printing Press in Ramallah were also signed. Modi also announced that the youth exchanges would see an increase from 50 to 100 youths from this year.
“We regard these as building blocks for a vibrant Palestinian state,” he said, adding that the two countries resolved to deepen their engagement with ministerial-level joint commission meeting.