Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu in New York in 2014. Photo Credit: PMO

Published in The Wire. 2 July 2017

It is the 50th year of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It has been 50 years since Israel annexed the Palestinian territories of West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip following the Six Day Arab-Israeli War of June 1967.

During this time, Israel has tightened its hold over the territories, crushed Palestinian resistance and created hundreds of thousands of refugees. Its discriminatory policies affecting every area of Palestinian life have invited comparisons with the South African apartheid. However, UN resolutions condemning the occupation and Israeli settlements in the West Bank leave Israel unaffected, even as it relies on the continued support of the United States for its actions.

This is also the year that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to Israel; the first Indian PM to do so. He will address a gathering of Jews of Indian origin in a community reception in Tel Aviv on July 5. Modi he will not visit Palestine.

Historically, India framed its relationship with Israel based on a priority accorded to Palestine. In 1936, Jawaharlal Nehru informed the Zionist emissary Immanuel Olsvanger that he could not tolerate imperialism in India or Palestine.

P.R. Kumaraswamy, professor of West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, writes that while anti-colonialism was an important aspect of India’s backing Palestine, there was a religious dimension to the matter. The Congress and the Muslim League perceived the anti-imperialist Palestinian cause as a way to win over Indian Muslims whose support they were competing for and to unite Indian Muslims with the resistance against the British. Supporting Palestine was also a method of leveraging India’s interests in the Middle East.

Road to Washington and arms access through Israel

Nevertheless, India established full diplomatic ties with Israel only in 1992, even though it had formally recognised Israel in 1950. The end of the Cold War in 1991 reconfigured world politics and established the United States as the sole superpower.

Vijay Prashad, professor of International Relations at Trinity College, says: “India’s road to Washington and arms lay through Israel. After India’s nuclear weapon tests in 1998, the US imposed economic and military sanctions. During the 1999 war with Pakistan, Israel supplied arms to India, which were American in any case. India under Indira Gandhi had already reached out to Israel in 1971 for arms despite absent diplomatic ties. The Palestine issue started getting sidelined long ago, while the Congress was in power.”

In 2009, following lobbying by US and Israeli governments, India diluted its stand on the Goldstone Report which showed the illegality of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and accused it of violating international law.  The Congress expressed “reservations in making unqualified endorsement” of the report recommendations.  According to Prashad, there is not much difference in the language used in 2009, and the language subsequently used by India for Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2012 and 2014.

Then, for the first time in 2015, India abstained on a UNHRC resolution calling for a probe by the International Criminal Court into war crimes by Israel.  It continued to abstain on the resolution in 2016 and 2017 as well. However, it has voted in favour of other UNHRC resolutions that criticised Israel on the expansion of settlements and the right of Palestinians to self-determination.

India justified abstaining on the grounds that the resolution referred to ICC of which India is not a member. But a report in The Telegraph showed that India voted at least twice in favour of UNHRC resolutions which refer to the ICC in the context of atrocities in Syria. India’s altered voting behaviour therefore caused speculation that India had changed its policies on Palestine which the government has denied.

India-Israel bonhomie under Modi

Undoubtedly, there is markedly more visible warmth between the two countries since 2014 when Modi was elected PM.  High level visits to Israel by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, President Pranab Mukherjee and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj have already happened.  While Singh did not visit Palestine, Mukherjee and Swaraj did so. During the Congress regime too, a steady stream of bilateral visits continued to Israel.

Interestingly, the first time that a senior Indian minister visited Israel was only in the year 2000, when the BJP was in power; and the minister was L.K. Advani.  This is despite the fact that diplomatic relations were established since 1992 and Israel had been sending its presidents and prime ministers to India since 1993.  The most recent visit being of President Reuven Rivlin in November 2016.

India and Israel have been cooperating in a range of areas including agriculture, water conservation, science and technology, trade and investment. India and Israel also view each other as victims of Islamist terror which complements Modi’s Hindutva background. But by far, the largest area of cooperation is in defense.

Israel’s defense industry bagged its biggest security contract in April 2017 with the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries being awarded contracts worth $2 billion for providing medium range surface to air missile systems to the Indian Army. There are expectations of further arms deals when Modi visits Israel. It is no secret that India is currently the biggest importer of arms in the world while Israel is its second largest foreign supplier.

Where does Palestine stand?

Where does Palestine stand next to India-Israel bonhomie? When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited India last month – his third state visit to the country – Modi mentioned India’s unwavering support to Palestine and for a two state solution. He also spoke of a ‘sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel.’

Even before Abbas’ visit, a Palestinian Authority official said that while India had the right to build relations with Israel, it should not come at the expense of support for Palestine.

How has that panned out? Is it possible for India to de-hyphenate its ties with the two countries, considering that one is an internationally condemned transgressor state and the other fighting for independence from it? India’s defense ties with Israel make this even more difficult.

Palestinian embassy officials in Delhi who monitor India-Israel ties have expressed unhappiness over the increasing defense relationship.  A Der Spiegel investigation in 2014 showed that Israel invests significant sums into defense research and production. A good chunk of defense production is exported to countries like India. Defense export revenues in turn make it possible for the Israeli forces to sustain the military occupation of Palestine, inviting allegations that India is subsidising or underwriting the occupation.

When Modi visits Israel on July 4, what should we expect? Will he refer to the Palestinian cause? One can expect utterances about ‘the peace process and support for the two state solution. But it is doubtful he will go further – he is unlikely to raise the issue of the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike for example.

Any criticism of Israel’s human rights records at international forums could invite criticism of the Modi government’s own policies in Kashmir where he has militarily suppressed dissent and separatism. Neither Netanyahu nor Modi will embarrass each other; Netanyahu in particular would be eager to win over India for the longer term, especially as a voting ally at various human rights forums.

As Palestine observes its 50th year of Israeli occupation, hard strategic and military calculations define India’s national interest and colour its ties with Israel and Palestine.

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