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1 August 2014, Gateway House

India’s dilemmas in West Asia

Apart from supporting the UN resolution for a probe into Israel’s offensive on Gaza, India has chosen to distance itself from the crisis. It’s a stance that is in line with the position successive governments in India have adopted since the early 90s keeping the country's wider strategic interests in mind.


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There have been strong reactions in India about the Israeli actions in Gaza. The Parliament has been vociferous in its condemnation. Calling for a suspension of military purchases from Israel, an Indian parliamentarian suggested that “India cannot be a party to this genocide”. Where one member wanted India to raise the issue at the UN, another called for a “categorical stand condemning Israel.”  Couched in the humanitarian concern for the plight of Gaza residents, was the insinuation that because of the BJP government at the Centre, religious motives cannot be ruled out. The Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj responded by reminding the opposition that India’s relations with Palestine and Israel are a legacy of previous governments, including the Congress-led UPA of the recent past. She suggested that Indian lawmakers should instead encourage both sides to return to the negotiating table, and revisit an Egypt-brokered ceasefire agreement that the Hamas had earlier rejected. A day later, however, India alongwith BRICS countries voted in support of a UN Human Rights Council resolution for a probe into Israel’s offensive on Gaza.

The reality is that there has been a steady strengthening of India’s relationship with Israel ever since the two countries established full diplomatic relations in 1992. In recent years, India has been more willing to carve out a mutually beneficial relationship including deepening military ties and countering the threat that terrorism poses to the two societies. Before 1992, India had made the normalisation of relations contingent upon the resolution of the Palestinian issue. In 1992, India decided to delink the two, making it clear that it was not prepared to make an independent Palestinian state a precondition for improving ties with Israel. This was in tune with the policy much of the world was already following.

Over the years, the Indian government has toned down its reactions to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. It has also begun denouncing Palestinian suicide bombings and other terrorist acts in Israel – something that was earlier regarded as rather justified in light of Israel’s policies against the Palestinians. India is no longer initiating anti-Israel resolutions at the UN – a re-evaluation that has been based on a realisation that India’s largely pro-Arab stance in West Asia has not been adequately rewarded. India has received no worthwhile backing from the Arab countries in the resolution of problems it faces in its neighbourhood, especially Kashmir. There has been no serious attempt by the Arab world to put pressure on Pakistan to reign in the cross-border insurgency in Kashmir. On the contrary, the Arab nations have firmly stood by Pakistan, using the Organization of Islamic Conference to build support for Islamabad and jihadi groups.  If Arab nations, such as Jordan, have been able to keep their traditional ties with Palestine intact while building a new relationship with Israel, there is no reason for India not to take a similar route, which might give it more room for diplomatic manoeuvering. Keeping India’s wider strategic interests in perspective, successive Indian governments since the early 1990s have walked a nuanced line between expressing genuine concern for the Palestinian cause and expanding commercial and defense ties with Israel.

The domestic political milieu continues to exert substantial influence on the trajectory of India-Israel relations. Israel has been a good friend to India, but New Delhi is shy of demonstrating its friendship. At crucial times, when India needed Israeli help, it was extended unreservedly. Israel was willing to continue, and even step up arms sales to India after other major states curbed their technological exports following India’s nuclear tests. During the Kargil War, Israel provided India imagery about Pakistani positions which proved instrumental in turning the war around for India. When India was planning to undertake a limited military strike against Pakistan in June 2002 as part of Operation Parakram, Israel supplied hardware through special planes after a visit by the director-general of the Israeli Defense Ministry. The terrorism that both countries face comes not only from disaffected groups within their territories; it is also aided and abetted by neighbouring states, increasingly capable of transferring weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organisations.

Yet, there are differences of perception between India and Israel on the issue of terrorism. While for India, Pakistan is the epicenter of terrorism, Israel reserves that status for Iran. Israel might be sympathetic to Indian concerns regarding Pakistan, but it is not ready to make new enemies. Israel would not like to undermine the possibility of normalising relations with Pakistan at some future date.

Indian foreign policy faces conflicting choices in West Asia, and India’s ties with Israel will remain a function of its relationship with other states in the region. There are no easy policy choices to be made, but the conflicting imperative of continuing to strengthen its ties with Israel, along with courting other states in the region, especially Iran, will be a tough task indeed for Indian diplomacy. And this is what got reflected in the most recent debate in Parliament on Israel as well as in India’s decision to vote against Israel at the UNHRC.

Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.

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