By Siding With Israel, India Is Jettisoning Decades of Middle East Statesmanship

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This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.


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Five days into the bloody situation in Israel and Gaza, the Indian government’s only response was one tweet from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Put out on October 7, it has over 27 million views and was lacking in nuance – describing the attacks by Hamas as “terrorist attacks”, and expressing solidarity with Israel. The Foreign Ministry and External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishanker had simply retweeted the prime minister’s tweet and left it at that.


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Now, six days into the conflict, we have finally heard from the EAM spokesperson. But yet again, there is no direct re-assertion of India’s support for the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. The statement makes no mention of the loss of Palestinian lives in the ongoing conflict. Without naming Israel, it just talks about the “obligation to observe international humanitarian law”. The only attempt at striking a balance comes from mentioning the need to resume talks to establish a “viable State of Palestine”. 


And even this statement, that offers little to the Palestinian people, seems to be consciously delayed. It’s the immediate solidarity shown with Israel, by way of the tweet and the phone call made by Prime Minister Modi to Benjamin Netanyahu, which again emphasised that “India stands firmly with Israel”, that has registered as India’s essential response.


The fear is that this lack of nuance may have been intended, and that the Indian government may have erred in doing so.

Also read: Rooting for Israel, Not a Good Word About Palestine: Modi Is Upending Indian Foreign Policy

Certainly, Hamas’s use of violence needs condemnation. But equally well-documented is the violence of the Israeli state against Palestinians. So whenever such violence has broken out, the approach of the Indian government, even the Modi government, has invariably been to also underline the other side’s track record of violence, and also add the context of the Palestinians being denied their legitimate political rights by Israel. This time, the prime minister’s tweet left that out, and the EAM statement has barely mentioned it.


As recently as May 2021, while responding to a cycle of violence between Hamas and the Israeli Defence Forces that had left over 200 people dead, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti, made a clearly more nuanced statement. He condemned the “indiscriminate” rocket attacks by Hamas, described Israeli strikes as “retaliatory”, and at the same time underlined India’s “unwavering” commitment to the two-State solution. In 2014, too, even as India moved towards better relations with Israel, the then External Affairs Minister, the late Sushma Swaraj, had said that “we fully support the Palestinian cause”.


India’s relations with Israel are very close today, an almost total inversion of the days when Indira Gandhi was one of PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) chief Yasser Arafat’s biggest supporters. India is now one of Israel’s biggest arms customers, and also of advanced and sensitive defence (and surveillance!) systems. This also underlines that it’s a ‘friendship’ that has the blessings of the US. But even as India walks into the embrace of the US-Israel defence complex, one is not sure it cannot afford to ignore the sentiments of its Arab friends about Palestine, in the manner that the US and Israel tend to do.

It must also be noted that in Indira’s days, Hamas did not exist. Arafat’s PLO and Fatah were linked to a lower degree of violence, and showed a frequent readiness to be at the negotiation table, and so were easier to support against a continually belligerent Israel. In fact, in 1994, on the back of the 1993 Oslo Accords, that saw Arafat and the PLO historically recognising Israel, and also the creation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), as the de facto ‘Palestinian government’ – Arafat and two former Israeli prime ministers, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

But in the years that followed, the situation has worsened. Hardliners have a far greater say on both sides – Hamas, which practically controls Gaza, on one side, and a steady shift towards strongly right-wing governments in Israel, on the other side. Hamas and the IDF have been unrelenting in their violence. But even in this deteriorating climate, and despite a definite shift towards Israel by successive Indian governments, India has tried to walk a diplomatic tightrope. In May 2017, Prime Minister Modi played host to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and visited Israel two months later, the first Indian Prime Minister to do so. He followed that up by inviting Abbas to India in 2018.


Also read: Unpacking the Hindutva Embrace of Israel


But since then to now, one senses India’s increasing readiness to shrug off that fine balance. Partly because Hamas is now facing criticism from some Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are also India’s biggest trade partners in the Middle East. Both countries are also central to the recently announced ambitious India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), along with Israel and Jordan. The feeling seems to be that India can now dispense with the nuance of empathising with the Palestinians, and still maintain ties with the Saudis and the UAE and other Arab nations.

However, we may have ignored some serious imponderables. The biggest is the dangerous appetite that both Israel and Hamas have for violence. Both Iran-backed Hamas and US-backed Israel have the funding, the logistics, the arms and the motivation to be at war for a long time. Extended conflict would derail the IMEC indefinitely. Continued violence would also strain Saudi-Israeli ties which are only in their infancy.

So, even thinking just selfishly, India must realise that it has a stake in peace in the region, and push hard for it. There is also the small matter of oil prices, that tend to spiral each time violence spirals in the middle-east. Rising oil prices have an inflationary impact on domestic prices, which the BJP would not want just a few weeks from key state assembly elections and just months away from a general election.


That apart, the historical fact is that India does have a special relationship with the Palestinians. It was the first non-Arab nation to recognise the PLO, and supported their cause for decades. And as mentioned earlier, even the present government has a rapport with the Palestinian leadership, even if not with Hamas. It is, therefore, in the unique position of having a robust relationship with both sides of the current conflict, something that almost none of the major players can claim. So, at a time like this, Instead of picking only Israel, it would serve India to be a vocal peacemaker.


It would also look good on the Vishwaguru’s CV.


So, what fully explains the Prime Minister’s partisan tweet and the cagey EAM statement?

One would suggest that there is also a domestic aspect to India’s choice of dropping the Palestinian cause. Over the years, protesters against Indian authorities in the Kashmir Valley have repeatedly claimed to have been inspired by the protests in Palestine against Israeli forces, even equating protests in Srinagar with the Palestinian ‘intifada’ of 1987, and their subsequent struggle over the years. This has been a sticking point with the mandarins in Delhi, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party.


But there’s more. On October 9, four students of Aligarh Muslim University had an FIR filed against them just for raising slogans in support of Palestine, and against Israel. In addition, the incident allowed the Uttar Pradesh labour minister, the BJP’s Raghuraj Singh, to describe AMU as a ‘hub of terrorists’, a charge that’s often been flung at the institution in recent years.


Clearly, it suits the BJP to conflate the rampant anti-Muslim climate that it is creating in India with the portrayal of the latest conflict in Gaza as Hamas’ handiwork. This, while fully deleting the context of the violence that ordinary Palestinians have also faced at the hands of Israeli forces over the decades. Picking Israel over Palestine just for this, would undo years of empathetic and non-partisan statesmanship that India has demonstrated in one of the world’s most divided, most volatile conflict zones.

Rohit Khanna is a journalist and video storyteller. He has been managing editor of The Quint, and is a two-time Ramnath Goenka Award winner.


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Disclaimer: By Siding With Israel, India Is Jettisoning Decades of Middle East Statesmanship - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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