The South Asia Channel

India and Israel: Conflicted Friends Look to the Future

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s historic visit to Israel this month set the momentum for greater high-level engagement between both countries but his remarks to the Israeli opposition leader brought Indian foreign policy back to 1947.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (R) stands next to his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee as he wears a kippa, the traditional Jewish skullcap for men, on October 13, 2015 during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II. AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON        (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (R) stands next to his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee as he wears a kippa, the traditional Jewish skullcap for men, on October 13, 2015 during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II. AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s historic visit to Israel this month set the momentum for greater high-level engagement between both countries, including a possible visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, his mixed messages during the six-day tour of the region, which included Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, inject a degree of uncertainty to the Modi administration’s trajectory of relations with Israel.

Since Modi came to power, Israel has been the central focus of the government’s engagement with the region. Under his leadership, New Delhi not only expanded the scope of India-Israel strategic partnership but also moved towards abandoning the traditional “balancing act” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Mukherjee’s pronouncements were neither reflective of the new dimension to India’s policy towards Israel nor of the developing geopolitical realities in the region.

While the president’s statements in Israel were in sync with Modi’s policies, they carried a hint of India’s ideological compulsions that have traditionally informed relations with Israel. Focusing solely on upgrading ties with Israel, he steered clear of any mention of the Palestinian issue. In an unprecedented high-level acknowledgement, he also expressed gratitude to Israel for providing “critical defense supplies” during the 1999 Kargil War, which was a turning point in defense cooperation between the two countries.

Although the president seemed to have hit all the right notes in calling for stronger relations with Israel, his remarks to the Israeli opposition leader that religion cannot be the basis of a state, brought Indian foreign policy back to 1947. Through the years, the partition of the subcontinent was a critical determinant of India’s approach to relations with Israel. As a clarification, the president gave the example of Bangladesh, and observed that “Pakistan was created…on the basis of religion…[but] a large chunk came out of Pakistan and became an independent sovereign state within 25 years.”

In Jordan and Palestine, the president devoted considerable energies towards reiterating India’s “unwavering” support to the Palestinian cause and commitment to “work with all like-minded nations for the amicable resolution of this protracted conflict.” While speaking at the Al-Quds University, the president outlined how New Delhi has been at the “forefront” of promoting the Palestinian cause by opposing the partition of Palestine in 1947, being the first non-Arab state to recognize the state of Palestine in 1988, and campaigning for the recognition of Palestinian statehood by the U.N. in 2012.

Given that Modi has been significantly upfront about prioritizing relations with Israel, the president’s focus on the Palestinian issue was not well received by the Israeli media. Leading Israeli newspapers noted that while the president detailed India’s pro-Palestinian credentials, he failed to mention “the raging Palestinian terrorism on the streets.” The Times of Israel went as far as to indicate Jerusalem’s expectations of New Delhi by linking India’s position on the Palestinian issue to India-Israel ties. The newspaper stated that even though “Prime Minister Modi made developing cooperation with Israel a focus,” President Mukherjee “has indicated that India does not plan on abandoning its traditional support for Palestinian statehood.”

India’s moral commitment to the Palestinian issue is linked to the sensitivities of the minority community even though New Delhi has traditionally not done more than pay lip-service in support of a resolution to the conflict. Domestic political constituencies therefore, critically viewed the Modi government’s shift towards a more unambiguous pro-Israel policy.

Mukherjee’s remarks to the Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog were reminiscent of the ideological trappings of India’s West Asia policy. At a time when the strategic partnership between India and Israel has emerged well above the traditional defense and trade relations, the president’s comments indicate that domestic politics and ideological inhibitions still underscore the Israel policy.

India’s preoccupation with viewing Arab-Israeli relations through the prism of the Palestinian issue also adds another dimension to New Delhi’s indefinite regional policies. Contrary to the president’s statements in Palestine, the evolving geopolitical climate of the West Asian region does not require locating the Palestinian issue at the helm of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arab-Israeli relations have undergone a shift and for India, the imperative of “balancing” its West Asia policy need not be cast in the traditional mold.

The president’s statements were not reflective of the active forward-looking Israel policy that the Modi government seeks to pursue. However his tour could take the pressure off Modi’s Israel agenda. New Delhi’s recent abstention on a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution against Israel and the announcement of Modi’s visit brought about assertions of India giving too much weight to ties with Israel. The president’s visit frees Modi to actively pursue engagement with Israel without any domestic compulsion to walk the tightrope.

However, India’s ability to separate the Palestinian issue from Indo-Israeli relations could be tested in the future. As the security situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories deteriorates and Israel faces greater international pressure to negotiate an end to the conflict, it may not be long before Tel Aviv turns to New Delhi for diplomatic support. It was reported that India’s U.N. Human Rights Council abstention was in fact, at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. India may therefore, be compelled to take a more definitive stance on the conflict which it has, up until now, avoided.

GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

Kanchi Gupta is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.

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