India, Israel and Palestine

  • IASbaba
  • May 20, 2021
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  • GS-2: Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests.

India, Israel and Palestine

Context: Recently, India’s permanent representative to UN made a carefully crafted statement at the UN Security Council “open debate” on the escalating Israel-Palestine violence, striving to maintain balance between India’s historic ties with Palestine and its blossoming relations with Israel.

Evolution of India’s relationship with Israel & Palestine

  1. Nehru and Indira Gandhi era – Idealism & unequivocally pro-Palestine 

India stopped at recognising Israel

  • India’s recognised Israel in 1950. PM Nehru’s reasoning was that was that it was “an established fact”, and that not doing so would create rancour between two UN members.
  • However, India did not have full diplomatic ties with Israel.
  • All there was to show for the bilateral relationship was a consulate in Mumbai, established in 1953, mainly for issuing visas to the Indian Jewish community, and to Christian pilgrims. This too was shut down in 1982 for six years when Consul General criticised India in a newspaper interview
  • There was no Indian embassy in Israel till 1992.

In 1948, India was the only non-Arab-state among 13 countries that voted against the UN partition plan of Palestine in the General Assembly that led to the creation of Israel.

Reasons for India siding with Palestine (and a cold shoulder for Israel) was

  • India’s own Partition along religious lines (Historical basis)
  • Solidarity with the Palestinian people who would be dispossessed (HR Perspective)
  • To ward off Pakistan’s plan to isolate India over Kashmir (Geopolitical reason) 
  • Later, India’s energy dependence on the Arab countries also became a factor (Economic & Pragmatism)
  • To appeal to the sentiments of India’s own Muslim citizens (Domestic Politics)

India and Palestine

  • The relationship with Palestine was almost an article of faith in Indian foreign policy for over four decades. 
  • At the 53rd UN session, India co-sponsored the draft resolution on the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. 
  • In the 1967 and 1973 wars, India lashed out at Israel as the aggressor. 
  • In the 1970s, India rallied behind the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) and its leader Yasser Arafat (received as Head of State) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
  • In 1988, when the PLO declared an independent state of Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem, India granted recognition immediately. 
  1. Changes after 1991- Pragmatism
  • The opening of an Indian embassy in Tel Aviv in January 1992 marked an end to four decades of giving Israel the cold shoulder.
  • India’s decision to normalise ties with Israel in 1992 came against the backdrop of the break-up of the Soviet Union, need for economic pragmatism (i.e. access to Israeli technology), common threats of terrorism and massive shifts in the geopolitics of West Asia on account of the first Gulf War in 1990. 
  • The India-Israel relationship continued to grow, mostly through defence deals, and in sectors such as science and technology and agriculture.
  • There were few high-profile visits, and they all took place when the BJP-led NDA-1 under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in office.

India’s balancing act with Palestine

  • Despite growing Indo-Israel ties, New Delhi remained firmly on the side of the PLO, which was seen as ready for a political solution, and had accepted the two-state solution.
  • In 1996 India opened a Representative Office in Gaza, which later moved to Ramallah.
  • During the UPA’s 10 years in office, the balancing act intensified, and Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority that administers the West Bank, visited in 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2012.
  • India voted for Palestine to become a full member of UNESCO in 2011
  • In 20212, India co-sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution that enabled Palestine to become a “non-member” observer state at the UN without voting rights. 
  • India also supported the installation of the Palestinian flag on the UN premises in September 2015.
  1. Changes after 2014 – Secret affair came out of Closet – whispers of Pro-Israel
  • India never openly acknowledged the relationship with Israel fully, since it opened its diplomatic office in 1992. It was during NDA-2 that the government under PM Modi decided to take full ownership of the relationship with Israel.
  • In 2016, India abstained again at on a UNHRC resolution against Israel. 
  • Until 2017, in various statements, with its expression of support for a two-state solution, India had always included a line in support of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. The reference to East Jerusalem went missing – considered as substantial shift of India’s policy- in PM Modi’s statement during PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas visit to India in 2017
  • In February 2018, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. His itinerary did not include Ramallah (Palestine). The signal was that India had “de-hyphenated” the Israel-Palestine relationship, and would deal with each separately. 

Balancing act with Palestine

  • India voted in favour of a resolution in the General Assembly opposing the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
  • At the UNHRC’s 46th session in Geneva earlier this year, India voted against Israel in three resolutions – 
    • one on the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people 
    • A second on Israeli settlement policy, and
    • A third on the human rights situation in the Golan Heights.
  • In the current context of violence, India in its official statement appears to implicitly hold Israel responsible for triggering the current cycle of violence by locating its beginnings in East Jerusalem rather than from Gaza. 
  • The statement was also emphatic that “the historic status quo at the holy places of Jerusalem including the Haraml al Sharif/Temple Mount must be respected. (The site, administered by Jordan, is revered in both Islam and Judaism. Jewish worshippers are not allowed inside, but have often tried to enter forcibly)

Connecting the dots:

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