From Nehru to Indira & Modi: India's Evolving Approach to Israel & Palestine

October 16, 2023

The ongoing Gaza crisis has created a dilemma for India's right-wing.

While Hindutva supporters openly endorse Israel's actions in Palestinian territories due to a perceived shared animosity towards Muslims, the Indian government, led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, has taken a more restrained approach.

On May 17, India adopted a nuanced stance by expressing support for "the just Palestinian cause" and a steadfast commitment to the two-state solution during a United Nations Security Council meeting. However, this was essentially a delicate balancing act because while India acknowledged the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause, it also "condemned" the "indiscriminate" rocket attacks originating from Gaza that were aimed at Israeli citizens.

The two-state solution refers to a proposed resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which two separate, independent states, Israel and Palestine, would coexist side by side. Each state would have its own government and sovereignty, with defined borders and the ability to manage its own affairs. This solution is aimed at achieving a peaceful and negotiated settlement to the long-standing conflict.

This diplomatic position has developed even though there is growing friendship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Despite New Delhi's efforts to strengthen its connections with both parties in various ways, it's important to note that the relationship with Israel has seen significant improvement. Modi and Netanyahu have formed a strong bond, leading to substantial benefits in terms of trade and security cooperation," explained Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center to Media House Quartz."What's particularly noteworthy is that despite this close relationship, New Delhi has maintained a well-balanced stance on the Gaza crisis, offering support to both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives," he added.

India's approach to matters concerning Israel and the Palestinian territories has a well-established tradition of prudent diplomacy, tracing back to the era of India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

During Nehru's leadership, India and the Palestinian territories...

In 1950, India officially recognized Israel as a nation, but the relationship between the two countries remained strained. Nehru's 'West Asia policy' was influenced by Arab sentiments and opposed the Zionist project in Palestine, as noted by Tanvi Pate, a visiting research fellow at the University of Warwick.

Despite this, during the India-China war of 1962, the Nehru administration sought military assistance from Israel, and this unique dynamic persisted. Pate, citing Nicolas Blarel of Leiden University, highlighted the peculiarity of this relationship, where Nehru established a precedent by obtaining military aid from Israel without requiring any diplomatic exchanges or publicly acknowledging such security assistance.

During the 1970s, under the leadership of the Congress government, India took a significant step by becoming one of the initial non-Arab nations to extend support to the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its leader, Yasser Arafat, as the official representative of the Palestinian people.

Indira Gandhi and the Middle East: A Study of Diplomacy and Duality

The relationship between India and Israel under Indira Gandhi was marked by diplomatic distance and political support for the Arab cause. Indira Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 to 1984, cultivated the Arabs by diplomatically supporting them in their conflict with Israel, first by strongly condemning Israel during episodes of conflict between the two parties and then by unequivocally supporting Palestinian self-determination through diplomatic recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Indira Gandhi's policy towards Israel and Palestine was influenced by several factors, such as her close friendship with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, her commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement, her domestic political calculations to appease the Muslim minority in India, and her strategic interests in securing oil supplies and arms deals from the Arab countries. She also saw Israel as an ally of the United States, which she distrusted due to its involvement in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and its support for Pakistan.

However, despite her public stance against Israel, Indira Gandhi also maintained some covert contacts with the Jewish state, especially in the fields of intelligence and defence. She sought Israel's help in dealing with cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, as well as in developing India's nuclear and missile capabilities. She also allowed Israeli diplomats to visit India secretly and facilitated some humanitarian exchanges between the two countries. These contacts were kept under wraps to avoid antagonizing the Arab countries and the domestic Muslim population. Thus, Indira Gandhi's policy towards Israel and Palestine was a balancing act between her ideological preferences and her pragmatic interests.

Over time, India's initial reluctance waned, leading to the establishment of complete diplomatic relations with Israel, including the presence of embassies and ambassadors, in 1992. Since then, India has been progressively disassociating itself from the "Israel-Palestine" issue and moving towards a more balanced, if not nearly equal, friendship with both nations.

During Prime Minister Modi's tenure, India and Israel...

Fast forward to 2014, with Modi assuming office, and a gradual warming of relations between India and Israel emerged. Prior to this, the bilateral relationship was often seen as something kept discreet.

To put it more candidly, Israeli officials and commentators had privately expressed that India treated its relationship with Israel like a 'mistress'—willing to engage intimately behind closed doors but hesitant to openly acknowledge it, as noted by Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution in 2016. Various reasons were cited for this, from Indian domestic political sensitivities to its connections with Arab countries.

However, the dynamics began to change with ministerial visits to Israel from India. In January 2016, then-Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj visited Israel, and in July 2017, Modi made history as the first Indian prime minister to visit the country.

Despite being more vocal about his alliance with Israel than any previous Indian head of state, Modi had to strike a delicate balance. In February 2018, he visited the West Bank, becoming the first sitting Indian prime minister to visit both Israel and the Palestinian territories.

In the era of Modi's leadership, New Delhi's relationships with both Israelis and Palestinians have significantly improved. What has been evident is a well-defined policy of de-linking, where India has fostered relationships with both sides independently and on their own terms, as explained by Kugelman.

India has established trade connections with both regions, with Indo-Israeli trade experiencing substantial growth during Modi's leadership.

However, even with this sense of camaraderie, Netanyahu does not categorize India as an ally in the present conflict, which has disappointed right-wing Hindutva supporters.

Nevertheless, India's composed yet firm stance at the UN Security Council meeting is not unexpected for those who have monitored this diplomatic trajectory. India has the potential to utilize its position and potentially serve as a mediator in the current crisis. "It has garnered goodwill from both parties, providing it with considerable leeway in managing its diplomacy with both Israelis and Palestinians," Kugelman elaborated.

In Kugelman's view, even while taking on this role, India might revert to a well-established approach of discreetly and privately offering assistance to alleviate the crisis.




By Girish Linganna
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Comment on this article

  • Gautam Das, Bangalore

    Tue, Oct 17 2023

    Why india needs to forcefully push itself into this conflict. Let india behave like any other country in the world who have normal relation with Israel and Palestine. India should give first priority and importance to its own domestic conflict and humanitarian issues mainly Manipur. Kashmir, Haryana, Goa, unemployment, inflation, systematic corruption, rupee depreciation and mounting loan and debt which is bringing our GDP, forex and economy down drastically.

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