Change and continuity in India’s Palestine policy

India’s historical policy towards Palestine has been evolving, but a permanent fix to the Palestine question should not be lost sight of

March 02, 2024 12:16 am | Updated 01:10 am IST

‘America’s support for Israel and Tel Aviv’s disregard for Palestinian lives and international laws have created strong reactions in the Global South’.

‘America’s support for Israel and Tel Aviv’s disregard for Palestinian lives and international laws have created strong reactions in the Global South’. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Historically, India has been a firm supporter of the Palestine cause. And even when India’s relationship with Israel flourished in the past three decades, New Delhi has maintained a careful balance between its new partnership and historical commitment towards Palestine. In recent years, there have been questions on whether India is abandoning this balance and tilting towards the Jewish state in a changing West Asia, where even Arab nations have been ready to sidestep the Palestine question for better bilateral ties with Israel.

Immediately after the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel, in which at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a post on X, said he was “deeply shocked by the news of [the] terrorist attack”. He said, “We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour.”

Mr. Modi, who became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in 2017, has a good personal chemistry with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Supporters of Mr. Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hardly conceal their admiration towards Israel’s aggressive security model. On October 26, barely three weeks after the Hamas attack, India abstained from a vote at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that called for an “immediate, durable and sustainable humanitarian truce” in Gaza. India explained its stand by saying that there was no explicit condemnation of the October 7 “terror attack in the resolution”. All these factors suggested that India’s historical policy towards Palestine was undergoing a paradigm shift.

Evolving approach

India’s Palestine policy has evolved over the years. When the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution to partition Palestine into a Jewish state, an Arab state and an international city (Jerusalem) in November 1947, India, along with Pakistan and the Arab bloc, voted against it. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had compared the settler Zionists in historical Palestine to the Muslim League of undivided India. His position was that India, having gone through the horrors of Partition, should not support the partition of Palestine. But when the state of Israel was declared in May 1948, India swiftly adopted a pragmatic line: in 1950, it recognised Israel, but stopped short of establishing full diplomatic relations. Throughout the Cold War, India, an advocate of Third World autonomy, was one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestine cause.

Editorial | Lost voice: On India’s abstention on the Gaza vote at the U.N.

After it established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, bilateral ties between New Delhi and Tel Aviv began to deepen and broaden (today, Israel is one of India’s major defence and technology partners). But India publicly maintained its support for “a negotiated solution, resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognized borders, side by side at peace with Israel, as endorsed in the Arab Peace Initiative, the Quartet Road map and relevant UNSC Resolutions” — this means that India supported the creation of a Palestine state with East Jerusalem as its capital and based on the 1967 borders.

This position has evolved further after Mr. Modi became Prime Minister. In February 2018, when he visited Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, he called for dialogue to find a permanent solution to the crisis, but stopped short of saying anything on the status of Jerusalem or borders. It does not mean that India supports Israel’s claim over the whole of Jerusalem (New Delhi voted against the U.S. decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital), but it will not talk about the contentious issues such as the capital and border any more, while remaining a partner of Israel and a supporter of the two-state solution. Realpolitik displaces the moral content of India’s Palestine policy.

After October 7

A close analysis of India’s voting record at the UN, post-October 7, and the statements made by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) suggests that this position of balancing has not changed. It is neither a strong moral critic, like Brazil or South Africa, of the way Israel is conducting the war, nor a mute spectator or enabler of Israel, like the United States or the United Kingdom.

A few days after Mr. Modi’s tweet declaring solidarity with Israel over the “terror attack”, the MEA stated that India backed “a sovereign, independent viable state of Palestine”. After its first abstention, there were at least four votes at the UNGA on Israel.

On November 12, 2023, India voted in favour of a resolution that condemned Israeli settlements “in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem and the occupied Syrian Golan”. Two weeks later, New Delhi voted in favour of another resolution that expressed “deep concern” over Israel’s continuing occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights. On December 12, India supported a resolution that called for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire”. And on December 19, it voted for the Palestinian right to self-determination.

The voting record speaks for itself. One cannot have a two-state solution if Israeli settlements continue in Palestinian territories. And the only path towards a solution is diplomacy, not war, as there is no balance of power between Israel, the mightiest military in West Asia, and the Palestinian militants. So, in essence, if one supports the two state-solution, there should be a call for an immediate end to violence, support dialogue, condemn settlements and, in principle, back Palestinian right to self determination. This is what India has done, unlike the U.S., which claims to be supporting the two-state solution while voting against all resolutions at the UN and refusing to back the ceasefire call.

India’s interests

The support for the Palestine cause, even if limited, is rooted in tangible national interests. Israel’s ongoing offensive in Gaza, which has killed over 30,000 people, wounded some 70,000 and displaced nearly 90% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million, is one of the gravest humanitarian tragedies of the 21st century. Israel, despite this rogue behaviour, manages to avoid the wrath of the international laws and system mainly because of the unconditional support it enjoys from the U.S. But America’s support for Israel and Tel Aviv’s disregard for Palestinian lives and international laws have created strong reactions in the Global South. South Africa took Israel to the International Court of Justice, while Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva accuses Israel of committing “genocide” in Gaza. China has repeatedly called for a ceasefire, while Russia is hosting different Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

India, which aspires to be a leader of the Global South, cannot ignore these voices and sentiments. That is why External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said at the Munich Security Conference last month that Israel “should be and should have been mindful of the civilian casualties in Gaza”, which is India’s sharpest criticism of the Israel war till now.

The October 7 attack and Israel’s retaliatory war have also turned the strategic clock in the region back. Before October 7, India was gearing up to work in the post-Abraham Accords strategic reality through its cooperation with the Arabs, Israelis and Americans. But further Arab-Israel reconciliation is now on hold. The U.S.’s reputation stands as tarnished as that of Israel. If Saudi-Israel normalisation is not taking place, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) will have to wait. If the crisis persists and Houthis continue to target vessels in the Red Sea, it would create lasting economic pains for India. A prolonged war in Gaza would also enhance risks of a wider conflict in the region, involving Iran, Israel and America, who are all India’s partners. An immediate end to the war, restoration of order and stability in West Asia and a permanent fix to the Palestine question are as much in India’s interests as anybody else’s in West Asia. This should be the guiding core of India’s Act West policy.

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