Indian President Pratibha Patil caused a minor political earthquake in Damascus recently when she weighed in on Middle East politics. Patil's comments, including remarks that were perceived as criticism of Israeli policies and an endorsement of an undivided Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, jolted those who had thought they understood India to be a stalwart friend of Israel.
But those concerned should rest easy. After all, Patil's comments fall squarely in line with longstanding positions held by successive Indian governments, meaning the relationship between Jerusalem and New Delhi actually remains untarnished. The reality is that it’s the nuances of the India-Israel relationship that are being misunderstood by Israel's supporters in the West.
Headlines in several Israeli publications have screamed that Patil had called for Israel to return the Golan Heights—a strategically significant plateau seized by Israel in 1967—to Syria. However, a careful reading of media reporting on what was said during the state dinner Syrian President Bashar al-Assad threw in her honour reveals something altogether different.
In his opening address, Assad delivered remarks of the type usually associated with such events—copious amounts of Israel bashing. But he also said he hoped that India, soon to take up a rotational seat on the UN Security Council, will support Syrian goals including a return of the Golan Heights. The floor now hers, Patil responded with a typical thank you and acknowledgement speech, in the course of which she gave the standard Indian External Affairs Ministry position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. She said that India supported a negotiated solution that would result in a sovereign, independent, viable and united Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognized borders, side by side and at peace with Israel.
As far as India's upcoming turn on the Security Council, Patil stressed that India hoped ‘to work closely with other Member States for a balanced approach to peace and security issues,’ as reported by The Hindu, India's second-largest English-language daily. Patil also reportedly said that India supported the Saudi peace plan under which Israel would withdraw to pre-1967 borders and that the state of Palestine would be established, but that this would have to be accompanied by recognition of Israel.
The fact is that none of these comments is news, and as far as parsing the record goes, it was only Assad who discussed the Golan Heights. That said, its return is indeed supported by India, which views the situation through the prism of its own experience. Today, China still occupies Indian territory as a result of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. If India is to ever retrieve that land, New Delhi
believes it can’t turn a blind eye to other states in similar situations—especially ones in the Middle East, where it can’t afford to cede influence to a neighbour that is increasingly seen by many as a direct diplomatic and economic competitor.
Broadly speaking, although India enjoys commercial ties with Israel, especially in the fields of defence and counter-terrorism, it essentially views itself as a regional power. And the region it wants to influence is dominated by Muslims—from Egypt to Iran. In addition, India’s ruling Congress Party and the External Affairs Ministry are also exceedingly sensitive to what they consider to be the feelings of India's own 150-million-strong Muslim population.
As a result, while India can be expected to pursue bilateral ties with Israel, its regional approach will always employ rhetoric that pleases the Arab states and Iran. President Patil's comments should therefore be understood in this light—they were nothing more than that.
Jim Colbert is Policy Director at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and Deputy Editor of The Journal of International Security Affairs.