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India’s De-Hyphenated Policy vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine
India’s stand in the recent escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict can best be described as a de-hyphenated policy. Officials kept a studied distance and refused to take anyone’s side. Instead, the Indian establishment urged belligerent parties to restore the status quo. In the UN Security Council debate on the situation in the Middle East, T.S. Triumurti, India’s ambassador to the UN, opposed Hamas‘s rocket attacks on Israel, urged for de-escalation, and encouraged the resumption of talks between Israel and Palestine in a conducive environment. In his speech, he maintained India’s support for the “just Palestinian cause” and its commitment to back a “two-state solution.”
In international diplomacy, de-hyphenation means an independent rapport with two countries, having an adversarial relationship. It is the policy the United States explicitly follows vis-à-vis India and Pakistan. Since the second term of the Bush administration, the U.S. advocates de-hyphenation, connoting that its relation with India stands independent rather than affected by its relation with Pakistan.
India’s de-hyphenated policy towards Israel and Palestine overtly initiated in 2014 when Narendra Modi became prime minister. The policy ostensibly overlaps India’s non-alignment policy of the Cold War era. Both policies advocate independence in foreign relations. Nevertheless, there is a stark difference that also exists. Idealism inspired the non-alignment policy, which George Liska defines as: “stands for distinguishing between right and wrong and supporting the right.” In contrast, pragmatic realism inspires de-hyphenated policy as it sought self-interest without entirely sacrificing moral ground.
India’s reaction to the formation of Israel
Mahatama Gandhi, in his article published in Harijan in 1938, wrote: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to English or France to French.” He was sympathetic towards the Jewish community as he categorically criticised the life-threatening anti-Semitism and organised persecution of Jews by the Nazis. At the same time, he found the demand of Jews for a national home in Palestine because they were persecuted in Europe and mistreated in Germany absurd. He also criticised Arabs for unleashing violence on the Jewish settlers but largely remained in favour of Palestinian Arabs demand for self-determination.
Just months before India’s independence from British rule, Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru received a letter from Albert Einstein. He requested Nehru to support the proposal of a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the UN General Assembly, which the latter declined. Nehru’s refusal to Einstein’s request reflected both realism and idealism. He had two strong reasons to vote against Israel and favour Palestine’s demand for the non-partition of the land. First, India’s sizeable Muslim population, like other Muslims elsewhere, were pro-Palestinian. His vote in favour of Israel could have created internal unrest. Later, supporting Palestine also meant receiving Arab nations backing on the Kashmir conflict. Second, India’s advocacy on de-colonialisation and the right to self-determination. Nehru believed favouring Israel and allowing the partition of Palestine would heavily impact India’s brand.
In 1950, Nehru’s stand changed. He became the first Indian leader who covertly initiated a low-key version of de-hyphenated policy vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine when he recognised Israel in September of 1950. In a statement, Nehru said, “We would have [recognised Israel] long ago because Israel is a fact. We refrained because of our desire not to offend the sentiments of our friends in the Arab [world].” His government allowed Israel “immigration office” in Mumbai, which later became a consulate. For two decades after recognising Israel’s statehood, the relationship with the country remained dormant as India constantly stood for Arab’s objective of Palestinian rights. India remained non-aligned amid bloc politics which saved the state from taking any extreme side on Israel and Palestine conflict.
The relationship stirred with Israel in the 1971 Indo-Pak war when India urgently needed military equipment. Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir’s foresight on the potential of diplomatic ties with India under Indira Gandhi’s leadership allowed Israel to aid India secretly.
According to Chandrashekar Gupta, a retired ambassador, Israel’s aid to India and communication during the war against Pakistan was the “groundwork for the strong ties.” The narrative of Israel’s help in the 1971 Indo-Pak war became the argument for some Indian politicians to induce value to the relation.
Unsaturated foreign policy
Regardless of Israel’s help to India, India’s relations with Palestine continued to thrive. Under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, India became one of the first countries to invite the Palestine Liberation Organization to open an office in New Delhi, even though many nations declared its leader Yasser Arafat a terrorist.
In Indira Gandhi’s tenure, India had a zer0-sum approach towards Israel and Palestine. In 1975, India voted in favour of UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, equating Zionism with racism. The action received massive criticism within Indira Gandhi’s party and later revoked in 1991 by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. The rationale given to support the vote was to secure the energy supplies of India as Arab states are India’s chief energy supplier. The action ceased de-hyphenation or non-alignment because the relation with Arabs meddled India’s relations with Israel.
In 1977, the Janta Party formed the government after the emergency, despite rumours that the new government will reform its Middle East policy and reverse the dynamics in favour of Israel. The government reassured that stand of India would not change. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the foreign minister, called Israeli settlements illegal and asked Israel to vacate the “encroachments.” Janta Party leadership also opposed the Camp David Accords and stood in solidarity with Palestine. In 1979, the government organised the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in New Delhi.
When Indira Gandhi returned to power, Arafat visited India, defining India as Palestine’s “eternal friend.” In 1982, when the Israel-Lebanon war broke out, Indira Gandhi criticised Israel for its belligerence and expelled Israel’s consul from India. However, in 1983, when infighting occurred between Israel and Palestine, she remained neutral and refused to intervene.
The change in relations with Israel emerged in the mid-1980s when Rajiv Gandhi came into power after his mother, Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
Rajiv Gandhi was different from Indira Gandhi. His outlook was more similar to Nehru. Additionally, he was a pragmatic politician. In 1985, he changed India’s dynamics with Israel and Palestine, making independent foreign policy for both entities. He made history by meeting with his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres at the UN General Assembly session. At the same time, he criticised Israel’s air-raids on the PLO’s Tunis headquarters in 1985 and convened a Non-Aligned Committee on Palestine in New Delhi.
Rajiv Gandhi, in his tenure, built a foundation of a possibility of a sustainable relationship with both Israel and Palestine as he moved away from the anti-Israel stance. On the one hand, under his leadership, India became the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestinian state declared by the Palestine National Council in Tunisia. On the other hand, he also openly rejected Arab demands to expel Israel from the UN.
India learned from China and the Soviet Union, as both the states were increasing collaboration with Israel while being outwardly critical of its actions against Palestinians during the First Intifada. From them, India understood that it had no reason to cling on to unrewarding sentimental commitments to Palestine. Moreover, during the First Intifada, Palestinian violence often misrepresented India’s moral support for Palestinian “resistance.” The violence was difficult to justify for a country that values the principle of non-violence, and, as a result, some semblance of balance slowly crept in.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s initiative to view Israel and Palestine separately, the conflict no longer viewed in zero-sum terms. All Indian prime ministers after him followed this rule of de-hyphenation without much deviation.
A consensus reached in India’s political establishment that the state will not render its support for securing the Palestinians sovereignty while building a relationship with Israel and remain a quiet supporter of Palestine’s statehood without complementing Israel into it.
After the Oslo Accords, the hostility between Israel and the Arab world eased. Since then, several Arab states have established diplomatic relations with Israel. The truce assuaged India’s position and allowed it to form a partnership with Israel, one of the militarily advanced countries in the world. In the 21st century, India and Israel built robust defence cooperation. They jointly developed a Barak-8 surface-to-air missile. Also, Israel is India’s third-largest arms supplier, accounting for 13 percent of its imports. Ties with Israel also expanded in agriculture, water, homeland security, cybersecurity, and technology. During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure, several officials have visited Israel.
In Narendra Modi’s tenure, it has become apparent that India will not calculate its relation with Israel and Palestine on their dynamics with each other. Instead, it will put its self-interest above everything else and will not restrict its interests for the sake of balance. The policy of de-hyphenation scored well in India-Israel relations. On the other hand, Palestinians feel neglected and betrayed by India when they observe the over-celebrated bohemia between Modi and Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu on their trips to each other’s states without discussing Palestine’s concerns. Though India continues to back Palestine in the international forum, the de-hyphenated policy has reduced Palestine’s cause in India’s to-do list.
It will remain de-hyphenated
Historically, India had supported the Palestinian cause, but today India views the conflict as an “internal matter” of Israel and Palestine. Pragmatism and non-alignment drive India’s approach that will not change in the foreseeable future. India’s relation with Israel and Palestine will sustain based on their own merits, regardless of their approach towards each other.
A dialogue between Israel and Palestine is India’s wish. Still, it will not pester either of them as the consequences will strategically affect India’s position in Kashmir vis-à-vis Pakistan’s ongoing gerrymandering in West Asia and North Africa. Fundamentally, India does not want to put Arabs against its Jammu and Kashmir policy. The balancing act of India this time has not gone down well with Israel. The disappointment of Benjamin Netanyahu was evident through his tweet in which he thanked 25 countries for supporting Israel’s fight against terrorism with no reference to India.
The incident of violence between Israel and Palestine revealed a deep schism in Indian society. India’s right-wing nationalists and Indian Muslims also reacted to the recent escalation in the conflict in the region in favour of Israel and Palestine, respectively. Indians in America rallied in support of Israel with banners such as “Hindus stands with Jews” and “Hamas stop terrorism.” In Kashmir, flags of Palestine raised in solidarity. Twitter hashtags such as #ISupportIsrael, #IndiaStandsWithIsrael, #IsraellUnderFire and #StandWithIsrael trended along with #FreePalestine and#StandWithPalestine.
The state needs to see and manage how citizens perceive an international conflict. Some scholars believe that India’s divided public reaction to the conflict could seriously impact its de-hyphenated policy. Nevertheless, considering India’s insignificant role in the Middle-East conflicts, the public reaction is nothing but twiddling one’s thumbers.