“India may end support to Palestine at UN,” read the headline of the popular Indian newspaper, The Hindu, in December 2014. Similar headlines resonated throughout media outlets in India and Israel with an influential Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, relating the rumors that emerged after the landslide electoral victory of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party in May 2014. Such rumors were put to rest, at least in the media, when the spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, in response to a question on the matter, stated that “there is no change in our (India’s) policy of extending traditionally strong support for the Palestinian cause while maintaining good relations with Israel.” He went on to attribute rumors of such a change to what he called the wrongful viewing of foreign policy “as a choice between two polar extremes.”
Despite the rejection of this rumor by the Government of India, the sense of a possible change still lingers on. The occurrence of the seismic shift, which would constitute a radical change in India’s policy toward Palestine, would not be entirely unexpected. This is due to the burgeoning relations between India and Israel, two nations which just three decades ago did not maintain normal diplomatic relations. Trade has grown from $200 million in 1992 to over $5 billion in 2015 and the defense relationship has also deepened, with New Delhi said to be on the verge of signing a $3 billion arms deal with Israel. In addition to the closer economic and defense ties, Modi is expected to become the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in a highly anticipated trip later this year. Furthermore, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has long espoused decidedly pro-Israel sentiments and rhetoric. Notably, the inaugural visit by an Israeli prime minister to India took place in 2003, when the BJP was at the helm of federal power in India.
However, despite indications of such a shift, India’s approach to Israel and Palestine, and by extension the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, point to what is largely a continuation of its two-decade-old policy on the issue—despite warmer relations with Israel. This is evident in New Delhi’s voting pattern on matters relating to the conflict at the United Nations. In both 2015 and 2016, India abstained from voting on a resolution calling for Israel to face the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed during its Gaza offensive. The abstention was a shock to the Palestinians. At the same time, India voted for a resolution on the creation of a database of companies operating within illegal Israeli settlements, a move which could facilitate the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. India appears to be maintaining its balancing act of Palestinian solidarity in tandem with cordial relations with Israel.
The main question now is why the Modi government has not rejected the continuation of such an act and pivoted toward a pro-Israel position politically, a position which is more aligned with that of the BJP? The answer lies in the history of India’s relationship with Israel and Palestine.
In the broader historical context, India’s relationships with these two entities have been defined and molded by internal and external constraints. India’s earliest position on the conflict was framed through its experience of colonialism at the hands of the British Empire; a 1938 Indian National Congress resolution deplored “that in Palestine, the Jews have relied on British armed forces to advance their special privileges and thus aligned themselves on the side of British imperialism.” This association of the Jews in Palestine with the colonizers — the same colonizers who, at the time, were the colonial masters of India — further consolidated Indian support for the Palestinian cause.
Later, when the UN Special Committee on Palestine recommended partition, India opposed it and, following the establishment of the State of Israel, India voted against her admission into the United Nations. Nonetheless, India’s prime minister at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not completely rule out possible future relations with Israel; in the aftermath of Israel’s admission to the UN, Nehru wrote that “We [India] shall have to consider our future policy in regard to it [Israel’s admission to the UN.]” Then, in September 1950, India recognized the existence of Israel with the issuance of the following statement by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA): “The Government of India has decided to accord recognition to the Government of Israel.” However, diplomatic recognition would have to wait another 40 years.
On the surface, it would appear that India’s reluctance to establish diplomatic relations was the product of its principled stance against colonialism and the oppression of other third world people. However, there were other factors at play—factors that hindered any possibility of diplomatic relations at that time. During the timeframe under which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was developing, there was another parallel conflict unfolding, which was also related to partition: the India-Pakistan conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir. This conflict provided an internal factor that influenced India’s decision to withhold diplomatic relations with Israel. Such a factor is evident in the words of India’s then-head of delegation to the UN, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who stated that India’s actions with respect to recognizing Israel would only manifest following the settlement of the Kashmir dispute.
The Kashmir dispute developed into an international issue for Muslims. India’s pro-Arab position (which also meant a de facto pro-Palestinian stance) was due to the fact that the question of Indian sovereignty over Kashmir and also Hyderabad was actively debated at the United Nations; not appeasing the Arab states would have cost India seven votes in the General Assembly and one vote at the Security Council. It has also been argued that India’s act of recognizing the existence of the state of Israel was in some part due to Nehru’s anger over Egypt’s vote on the issue of Hyderabad at the United Nations.
Another internal factor which precluded diplomatic relations in 1950 was India’s Muslim population, which constitutes a large minority in the country. P. R. Kumaraswamy has noted that “Indian Muslims have been sympathetic towards the Islamic countries and their perceived opposition significantly contributed to the prolonged absence of political relations between India and Israel.”
Given the connection made between the recognition of Israel and the settlement of the Kashmir dispute, India’s pro-Arab policy was not solely the product of staunch anti-colonialism. It was in fact a carefully devised policy of appeasement; a pragmatic undertaking that was influenced by internal factors such as India’s large Muslim population, the Kashmir issue and also external factors such as Arab support at the UN.
Fast forward to January 29, 1992, when India officially established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. Such a move was seen as the completion of a process that had been put in place in 1950 and yet been stillborn for four decades. Just a few months before the normalization of ties, India had voted for a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to repeal the infamous 1975 resolution that equated Zionism with racism. The build up to the establishment of relations was marked with mixed signals on India’s part — from the scuttling of attempts by the Indian foreign minister to invite an Israeli prime minister to India by Prime Minister Desai to Indira Gandhi’s condemnation of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The question here is why did India feel it was time to establish diplomatic relations. What had changed?
The most important answer relates to the lack of an adverse reaction from West Asian states to the establishment of relations. Worry over the Arab reaction had been a constant concern of India’s when it came to its relations with Israel; indeed, its condemnation of Israel in 1982 could very well have had to do with fears of an energy crisis if India was seen as uncritical of Israeli action. India, after all, was dependent on Gulf oil. What had changed in 1992, according to P.R. Kumaraswamy, was the initiation of direct negotiations between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel:
The willingness of the Arabs and Palestinians to seek a political settlement through direct negotiations altered the rules of Arab-Israeli conflict. Once the Arabs and P.L.O. embarked upon negotiations with Israel there was no compelling reason for India to maintain the status quo. Moreover, Palestinian support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Kuwait crisis significantly undermined the Palestinian position. During his visit to India, shortly before normalization, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat became reconciled to India’s new approach to the Middle East…
The normalization of relations did not result in the abandonment of India’s traditional support for a Palestinian state and marked the beginning of the delicate balancing act India has sought to maintain by keeping Indo-Israeli and Indo-Palestinian relations independent of each other.
In the years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, the India-Israel relationship grew, despite a lack of publicity, up till 2014. Successive Indian governments, including one under BJP rule, have nurtured the relationship. Interestingly, despite all the BJP’s pro-Israel rhetoric, during its first term in power from 1999-2004, India did not significantly alter any of the policies relating to its solidarity with the Palestinians. While the period was marked by the first visit of an Israeli prime minister to India, BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reaffirmed India’s position on the matter, stating that India “fully” supported the Palestinian cause.
Parallels between the past and present BJP governments in New Delhi are evident in terms of the marked improvement in Indo-Israeli relations. However, as the historical context of the relationship has shown, the Modi government still has to deal with the same constraints that have historically shaped Indo-Israeli relations: India’s energy security and also the fate of the millions of Indians working in the Gulf are dependent on India’s relationship with West Asian states. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is probably the most contentious enduring conflict in a region India considers its extended neighborhood.
India’s approach to Israel is perhaps best captured in the following quote by Mahatma Gandhi on how the Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine should approach the Palestinian Arabs: “No exception can possibly be taken to the natural desire of the Jews to find a home in Palestine. But they must wait for its fulfillment, till Arab opinion is ripe for it.” In a way, India has subscribed to Gandhi’s belief; it waited for Arab acceptance of direct negotiation with Israel before establishing relations and even now, under the government of a pro-Israel party, India still vocalizes Palestinian solidarity, despite the backdrop of deepening relations with Israel.
Thus, given the historical context of bilateral ties, it is unlikely that Modi will abandon the pragmatism of his predecessors in dealing with Israel. Souring relations with West Asian states for Israel is a gamble India—more specifically Modi—can ill afford. This is especially true if Modi is to deliver on his electoral promise of an economic boom, a promise which is very much dependent on Gulf oil for energy security.
Dhirenn Nair is a graduate in International Relations from the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus.