“We have been waiting for you, Prime Minister!” When I heard Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel say this to our Prime Minister at Ben Gurion airport, a three-year-old meeting between the two at a New York hotel flashed across my mind.
It was September, 2014. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was making his maiden visit to the United Nations to address the General Assembly (UNGA). Elaborate arrangements were underway for the first ever visit of the prime minister that included a big community reception to be attended by 25,000 Indian Americans.
Several meetings at the sidelines with global leaders were also being planned. One of them was with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The request for a meeting at the UNGA came from the Israeli foreign office. But the difficulty was that, as per the schedule, our Prime Minister was to leave the US on the day of the arrival of the Israeli Prime Minister for the UNGA address. The only slot available for the meeting between the two leaders was a Sunday evening, three days before the UNGA address date of the Israeli Prime Minister.
We assumed that the meeting wouldn’t be feasible as Netanyahu could not come three days ahead of his UNGA address. Also, for a meeting in New York on a Sunday, he had to leave Israel on Saturday, which, for a practising Jew, is difficult. But, to our surprise, the Israeli side informed us that Prime Minister Netanyahu would be reaching New York for the meeting on Sunday.
Just as we were settling down with a sense of satisfaction over the keen interest of Netanyahu for a meeting with Modi, panic calls started coming in from Jerusalem, four days before Sunday. The Israeli foreign office was informed by someone in the MEA in Delhi that scheduling a meeting with Netanyahu for the Prime Minister, when President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine was not going to be available for a similar meeting, would be difficult. It would go against the well-established convention, the Israelis were told.
It was hyphenated diplomacy of the Indian foreign policy establishment in action. The time had come for a political call to be taken about this convention. None other than Modi, with his courage of conviction, could have taken that call.
As expected, the Prime Minister brushed aside the conservative view and decided to go ahead with the meeting. That was the first instance of de-hyphenation of our foreign policy. The “sky is the limit to India-Israel relations” statement recollected by Netanyahu at the Jerusalem airport was from that meeting.
Not just West Asia, there are several other instances where hyphenation has handicapped our ability to forge ties that help our national interests. De-hyphenation has helped us in formulating a more pragmatic foreign policy. Hyphenation, in most cases, is based on romantic ideological reasons. But foreign policy should be guided by pragmatic national and global interest only.
This is a big shift for an establishment that was trained in hyphenated diplomacy. One significant incident in the initial months of our government illustrates the hesitant transition of the establishment from hyphenation to de-hyphenation. Hamas and the Israeli Army were engaged in a serious battle during that time. Missiles were raining in from both sides. India was to issue a statement in the Security Council on the ongoing West Asia conflict. As was the practice, the statement drafted by our foreign office had routinely condemned Israel for using “disproportionately large” force against “minor provocation” by the Hamas. As is the wont, the statement had urged “both sides” to resolve the conflict “through dialogue”.
That Hamas had fired hundreds of rockets into Israel and that they couldn’t hit the targets only because of the high-end Israeli technology called the Iron Dome hardly mattered to those who drafted the statement. Also, the fact that in a war there won’t be anything called “proportionate force”, too, didn’t matter. What mattered was the convention that in matters of West Asia, the blame should always be on Israel. In our zeal to uphold that convention, we had even sought to advise Israel to do something that even we wouldn’t be doing ever: Dialogue with the terrorist outfit, Hamas. EAM Sushma Swaraj had to rise in Parliament to clarify that the government wouldn’t take sides in the conflict.
It was not the fault of the ministry staffers. It was the convention that had gone on for decades because of our romanticism in foreign policy. Someone had to bring in realism, which Modi did.
It doesn’t mean there is any shift in our West Asia policy. We are wedded to our support for the just cause of the Palestinian people and their government. We have supported Palestine in resolutions sponsored by them or other countries at the UN on many occasions in the last three years. That policy will continue.
To attribute our de-hyphenation to ideology and insinuate that it is anti-Muslim smacks of the communal mindset and lack of knowledge about foreign policy on part of the accusers themselves. In our pragmatic de-hyphenated foreign policy, we are friends with Iran and Saudi Arabia at the same time; US and Russia at the same time. China, Philippines, Japan, Vietnam — all of them may be friends or foes at various levels; but for us they are all our friends on a stand-alone basis.
“There are no permanent friends or foes in diplomacy; there are only permanent interests”, said Henry Kissinger.