Caught Between Israel And Palestine

Due to the recent Israel-Palestine crisis and changing geopolitical dynamics, New Delhi faces challenges as it seeks to maintain a delicate balance between supporting Israel and Palestine while also pursuing its economic interests in the Arab world
By Arun Bhatnagar
  • Israel is paying the price for years of hubris during which successive governments felt the country was much stronger than the Palestinians
  • Over the years, India’s stance in regard to Palestine has undergone changes, just as the policy with respect to Israel has kept evolving
  • Over the years, India’s stance in regard to Palestine has undergone changes, just as the policy with respect to Israel has kept evolving
  • Many Arab countries took a neutral stand in the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 and generally backed Pakistan during the wars in 1965 and 1971
  • India and Israel have developed good economic connections, particularly in the defence sector, where India is among Israel’s major clients

BACK in May, 2021, India abstained at the voting on a Resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) at Geneva, which came up in the backdrop of the Palestine-Israel confrontation in the Gaza Strip.

Shortly afterward, in a strongly-worded letter to the Indian Minister of External Affairs, Dr S Jaishankar, his Palestinian counterpart, Riyad al-Maliki (born 1955), inter alia, wrote:
‘…Republic of India missed an opportunity to join the international community at this turning point, both crucial and long overdue, on the path to accountability, justice and peace… The Resolution is the by-product of extensive multilateral consultations… your abstention stifles the important work of the Human Rights Council at advancing human rights for all peoples, including those of the Palestinian people… ’.

PRO-PALESTINE POLICY

In March 1977, a newly-appointed Minister of External Affairs, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had declared at a rally: ‘For permanent peace in the Middle East, Israel must vacate the Palestinian land it has illegally occupied.’
India voted against a UN Resolution in 1947 which partitioned Mandatory Palestine between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, preferred a Federal State, with Arabs and Jews enjoying the widest possible autonomy and with a special status for Jerusalem; he inherited this perspective from Mahatma Gandhi who, while sympathetic to the Jews, was opposed to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Mahatma felt this would be unjust towards the 600,000 Arabs who already lived there and Nehru blamed British imperialism for the problem in Palestine.
Some experts have been of the opinion that India’s reluctance to establish diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992 ought to be viewed in the context of Cold War dynamics.

At that time, the West was firmly behind Israel and the Soviet Union had come out in support of the Arabs. Despite its non-aligned position, India was tilted towards Moscow and thought it had no choice but to continue with a pro-Palestine policy.

INDIA-ISRAEL AFFINITY

It was only in 1992 that Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao (1991-96) took a bold decision, without reference to a possible fallout in the Arab countries. However, he continued to vocally support the Palestinian cause and did not deviate from India’s principled stand.
Over the years, India’s stance in regard to Palestine has undergone changes, just as the policy with respect to Israel has kept evolving, especially post-2014.

What has changed in India’s relationship with the Palestinians is the overt rhetoric in favour of Palestine that has been toned down. There is a feeling that India’s support has not yielded dividends and that Palestine has often sided with Pakistan on Kashmir.

There was also criticism after many Arab countries took a neutral stand in the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 and generally backed Pakistan during the wars in 1965 and 1971.

Nehru preferred a Federal State, with Arabs and Jews enjoying the widest possible autonomy and with a special status for Jerusalem; he inherited this perspective from Mahatma Gandhi who, while sympathetic to the Jews, was opposed to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Mahatma felt this would be unjust towards the 600,000 Arabs who already lived there and Nehru blamed British imperialism for the problem in Palestine

Today, India is close to Israel and the two Prime Ministers share a personal rapport. Both countries have developed sound economic connections, particularly in the defence sector, where India is among Israel’s major clients.
There may be no going back, given the Modi-Netanyahu partnership.

OPERATION AL-AQSA FLOOD

In early October, 2023, the Hamas (or Islamic Resistance Movement), an Islamist political and military formation that has governed the Gaza Strip of the Palestinian territories, launched a major military campaign named ‘Operation al-Aqsa Flood’ against Israel, prompting Tel Aviv’s declaration of war and widespread outbreak of fierce fighting.

Hamas also has a presence in the West Bank – the larger of the two Palestinian territories, in which Fatah exercises control – and is considered a potent political force in the area, having emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987.

Fatah is a Palestinian nationalist and social democratic political party and the largest faction of the confederated multi-party Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

In recent times, Hamas has gained popularity and support in Palestinian society. Their resort to human shields, methods of hostage-taking and history of violence against non-combatants, including massacres of civilian population, has led the Western powers, including the United States, to designate it a ‘terrorist organisation’.

Within days, Israel took the hostilities to the Gaza Strip and unleashed air strikes of such magnitude that the US President asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abide by the ‘rules of war’.
Speaking to a gathering of Jewish community leaders at the White House, Joe Biden (he asked Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to travel to Tel Aviv, primarily to reassure Netanyahu) said: “The one thing that I did say (to Netanyahu) is that it is really important that Israel, with all the anger and frustration … that exists, operate by the rules of war.”

A section of the US Republicans have blamed Biden for the Hamas attack, with former President, Donald Trump, criticising the perception of American weakness; Florida Governor, Ronald Dion DeSantis, and Senator Tim Scott also pointed fingers at Biden’s policies, including the release of frozen Iranian funds.
In a comment that appears to have gone somewhat unnoticed, Donald Trump specifically referred to Netanyahu in recalling that the Israeli PM betrayed him, just before a top Iranian general was killed in 2020. Trump stated: “We had everything all set to go, and right before it happened, I got a call that Israel will not be participating in this attack… They didn’t tell us why… I’ll never forget that Bibi Netanyahu let us down …”

NEW MIDDLE EAST CONFLICT

Demonstrators have poured onto the streets of several West Asian capitals in support of Palestinians.
‘No to the occupation, no to America’, they chanted in central Baghdad after Shia leader, Moqtada Sadr, called for an anti-Israel protest. In Amman – which has a peace treaty with Tel Aviv – more than 10,000 people were said to have gathered near the Grand Husseini Mosque, following a call by the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood.

A section of the US Republicans have blamed Biden for the Hamas attack, with former President, Donald Trump, criticising the perception of American weakness; Florida Governor, Ronald Dion DeSantis, and Senator Tim Scott also pointed fingers at Biden’s policies, including the release of frozen Iranian funds

In Lebanon, adherents of the Iran-backed Hezbollah rallied in the southern suburbs of Beirut in favour of Palestine.
Iran’s Foreign Minister called on Israel to cease its actions in Gaza and warned that the conflict may spread to other parts of the Middle East if Hezbollah joins the war which would cause a ‘huge earthquake’ for Israel.
A high-ranking Hamas commander responsible for the Kibbutz Nirim massacre was said to have been killed in an Israeli airstrike.
Both sides to the conflict have conducted themselves unethically, pushing ordinary citizens and children towards the path of death.

CHINA -A NEW POWER BROKER

When the Palestine President, Mahmoud Abbas (born 1935) was in Beijing in June, 2023, China committed to contribute ‘Chinese wisdom, Chinese strength’ to resolve the long-standing Palestine-Israel issue. This pledge, coming on the heels of a Beijing-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, was perceived as part of China’s ambition to expand its clout in the Middle East.
China’s initial response to the current crisis was restricted to a bland call for restraint by both sides. President Xi Jinping, who had earlier touted a Beijing-led security initiative for the Middle East as an alternative to the US-led system, chose not to make any hasty statement on the conflict.
After the outbreak of hostilities, President Abbas travelled to Jordan to confer with King Abdullah-II and with Antony Blinken at Amman, instead of at Ramallah (West Bank) – where the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is based – due to security reasons, even as air attacks and ground assaults continued.
The progressive erosion of what was regarded as Israel’s secular identity and the reality of a radical Islamist organisation fronting the Palestinian struggle, could have wider ramifications for global politics, far beyond the Middle East.

INITIAL RESPONSE & NUANCE

New Delhi put out a tweet (apparently without consultations, such as with Moscow) and was left with but little place in the picture or to contribute to an early ceasefire, notwithstanding a historical record in the Middle East.

Such are the perils of speaking too soon, else India may have been in a position to participate in peace-making moves, alongside Egypt and other friendly countries.
The Prime Minister had expressed shock at the ‘terrorist attacks’ and that ‘we stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour’.

The hostilities in the Middle East are dividing the Arab world. The UAE and Bahrain, who signed the Washington – sponsored Abraham Accords with Israel, do not seem to have taken kindly to the Hamas attack

Soon thereafter, the South Block in New Delhi sought to nuance this, with the observation that there is a ‘universal obligation to adhere to international humanitarian law’ and also a global responsibility to fight the menace of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. Further, New Delhi reiterated its traditional stand on the Israel-Palestine question, saying that India has always advocated the resumption of ‘direct negotiations’ towards establishing a ‘sovereign, independent and viable State of Palestine living within secure and recognized borders, side by side at peace with Israel’.

In 1974, India became the first non-Arab nation to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), headed by Yasser Arafat (1929-2004), as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Several countries, including Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia and Turkey, have recognized Palestine as a State, while others like Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, the UK and the USA have yet to do so, although they support a form of two-State solution to the conflict but have made recognition conditional to direct negotiations between Israel and the PNA.

ROLE OF THE OIC

The hostilities in the Middle East are dividing the Arab world. The UAE and Bahrain, who signed the Washington – sponsored Abraham Accords with Israel, do not seem to have taken kindly to the Hamas attack, in a rare departure from the past, where usually the entire Arab bloc spoke in a chorus against Tel Aviv.

Saudi Arabia mentioned ‘Israeli occupation forces’ and was leaning towards Palestine; Qatar, Kuwait and Oman have been critical of Israel.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – often described as the ‘collective voice of the Muslim world’, with headquarters in Jeddah – strongly condemned the military action in Gaza and Saudi Arabia called for a ministerial meeting of the multi-member body that has usually been inimical towards India.
On October 12, 2023, Pakistan’s caretaker Foreign Minister thanked the OIC for ‘sustained support’ on Kashmir during a visit by the OIC envoy, Yousef Al Dobeay, to Islamabad.
Pakistan has blamed Israel’s ‘illegal occupation’ for the cycle of violence.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have fled from Northern Gaza to the South after the Israeli army issued a warning.

DIPLOMATIC IMPLICATIONS FOR INDIA

The Middle East crisis can place India in a difficult situation, diplomatically, having erupted at a juncture when New Delhi was on the verge of pushing for a bigger role in the Region and it has come too soon after India, alongwith the United States, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Germany, Italy and the European Union (EU), announced the India – Middle East – Europe Economic Corridor at the G20 Summit in New Delhi (September, 2023).

The flare-up in violence seems to have put Saudi Arabia in a spot at a time when the United States was mediating the normalisation of its ties with Israel.

Hamas also has a presence in the West Bank – the larger of the two Palestinian territories, in which Fatah, a Palestinian nationalist and social democratic political party,  exercises control – and is considered a potent political force in the area, having emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987

It could also potentially derail the ambitious ‘connectivity project’.
Saudi Arabia immediately called for halting the conflict and said that the Kingdom had been warning of an ‘explosive situation as a result of the continued occupation and deprivation of the Palestinian people’s legitimate rights’, hinting that Riyadh would not pursue normalisation while overlooking Palestinian interests. They are reported to have put the Israel normalisation talks on hold, thereby signalling a rethink of foreign policy priorities.

The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was in touch with Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, to endeavour to prevent a broader surge of violence across the Region.

Like Israeli hardliners, only a few of the Arab regimes may really want a democratic State of Palestine that could well threaten governments defined by monarchical theocracy.
The US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, announced that a second aircraft carrier strike group was being sent to the eastern Mediterranean ‘to deter hostile actions against Israel…’.
For many years now, Israel has been administered by a populist politician who is a public-relations genius but may have divided the nation against itself. He has taken credit for every success while seldom taking responsibility for failures.

The Far Right-inclined coalition he set up in December, 2022 is proving to be a bad idea. No ‘national unity government’ can find it easy to repair the damage.
As it happens, Tel Aviv’s established reputation of a certain ‘invincibility’ has been dented.
On one level, Israel is paying the price for years of hubris during which successive governments felt the country was much stronger than the Palestinians who could be ignored. There is, as such, much to criticise about the way Tel Aviv abandoned the effort to make peace with Palestine.
The Hamas have committed atrocities and haven’t countenanced the possibility of a treaty with Israel, instead doing much to sabotage the Oslo peace process.
When all is said and done, diplomatic decisions must rest on national goals and national interest. For New Delhi, this translates into maintaining healthy relations with Israel as well as keeping up support for Palestine and continuing to develop mutually-beneficial ties with the Arab world.

A TIGHTROPE WALK IS INEVITABLE

For India’s top diplomats and government advisers (the ‘heaven-born’, as it were), the challenges ahead would appear considerably more demanding than the impressive display of a G-20 Summit. However, herein might conceivably exist an opportunity to regain some part of India’s previous relevance on ‘core issues’ of the Middle East.

Arun Bhatnagar

Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS and retired as Secretary, GOI. He attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi in the early sixties. After retiring as Secretary (Personnel & Training) in the Union Government in 2004, he worked with the National Advisory Council (NAC) and, later, as Chairman, Prasar Bharati, New Delhi. He has had postings in the President of India’s Secretariat and in the Indian High Commission,
London. Bhatnagar’s earlier Book, ‘India: Shedding the Past, Embracing the Future, 1906-2017’, was well received as a historical narrative.

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