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27 April 2016, Gateway House

Balancing Israel and Palestine

Since the end of the cold war, India has deepened its engagement with Israel while continuing to support the Palestinian cause. India’s position does not emerge out of a vacuum. The country has had many geopolitical and moral considerations to take into account before determining its stance.

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On 13 June 1947, Albert Einstein wrote an eloquent letter to prime minister designate Jawaharlal Nehru, imploring him to support a UN resolution to agree to the establishment of a Jewish state. Einstein did not like the concept of nation states, but wrote that the world is divided into nation states and “the Jewish people alone have been victimised and hounded” (without even the smallest protection of their own national home) [1]. Nehru was sympathetic to the Jewish plight, but responded that he had to pursue a line dictated by realpolitik and Indian interests—presumably, India’s ongoing struggle with its large Muslim minority and its oncoming battle with Pakistan, for which India would need much international support from Arab and Muslim states [2]. He went on to state that while he had sympathy for the Jews, he also had sympathy for the Arabs, who were being subjected to a potential partition and Jewish statehood against their will [3]. This correspondence, in effect, marked India’s first foreign policy stance towards Israel and Palestine.

Historically, since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, India had adopted a distant approach towards the Jewish state [4]. In 1938, Gandhi wrote that it would surely be a crime to reduce the proud Arabs so that Jews could have their own state [5]. Prime Minister Nehru voted both against the creation of the Jewish state and against Israel joining the United Nations in 1949. In 1974, India became the first country to recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the official representative of the Palestinians [6]. Alongside domestic Indian political concerns, many officials also saw parallels between India and Palestine, both formerly under colonial rule and split under colonial partitions of the British as they left the country [7]. The end of the Cold War, however, changed India’s considerations.

The end of the Cold War meant that India was no longer operating in a multipolar, non-aligned world: the United States was the unrivaled power player and supported Israel unequivocally. Even Palestine seemed unopposed to India forging stronger ties with Israel. Yasser Arafat famously declared that “the exchange of ambassadors and recognition [of Israel] are acts of sovereignty in which I cannot interfere… I respect any choice of the Indian government.”[8] He may have thought that it would help the Palestinian cause to have an ally to speak for them through diplomatic channels. On 29 January 1992, India established full diplomatic ties with Israel.

India’s relations with Israel were further bolstered after the Kargil War in 1999, during which Israel discreetly supplied India with weaponry and technology. [9] Since then, India’s relationship with Israel has grown greatly on the military, scientific, commercial, and economic fronts.[10] India’s expanding relationship with Israel has mostly been quiet, but this has changed under the Modi government.

In June 2015, Narendra Modi made highly publicised plans to visit Israel.[11] India-Israel defence trade has gone up to $10 billion, and both countries are engaged in defence technology cooperation.[12] India also abstained from voting on a UN resolution to condemn Israel for its actions in Gaza in 2015, which is seen as a big shift in Indian foreign policy.[13]

While both Israel and Palestine may clamour for India’s attention, India will continue to balance its deepening engagement with Israel with its support for the Palestinian cause. When President Pranab Mukherjee made a visit to Israel in October 2015, he tellingly made his first stop at a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj travelled to Palestine in January and, in her speech at the inauguration of the India-Palestine Digital Learning and Innovation Centre, made it clear that the Modi government still supports the Palestinian cause.[14] She also promised to engage in closer interaction with Palestine, politically and economically.

Israel offers India access to unprecedented military technology, which India suspects comes largely from the United States. However, the Modi government has continued to pledge strong support to, and solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Many look at the India-Israel engagement by linking it to India’s support of Palestine, yet the real source of concern for Israel should not be India’s support for Palestine but its close ties with now rehabilitated Iran, and Saudi Arabia. This “friend to all” stance India is taking may not stand the test of time, but it is working, and will continue to work for the foreseeable future.

Kanchana Sthanumurthy is an intern at Gateway House. 

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[1] Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ganguly, Sumit. India’s Foreign Policy: Retrospect and Prospect. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[5] Al Jazeera, Why Modi’s India Aligns More Closely with Israel than with Palestinians, 3 August 2014, <>

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Indian Express, 24 Years On, Why India Looks Set to Finally Come Out of the Closet on Israel, 14 January 2016, <>

[9] Ibid

[10] Al Jazeera, Why Modi’s India Aligns More Closely with Israel than with Palestinians, 3 August 2014, <

[11] Ibid

[12] Shapir, Yiftah S. “Strategic Alliance or Marriage of Convenience”, Foreign Affairs Magazine, July 2013, p. 33.

[13] Brookings Institution, India’s Delicate Balancing Act on Israel-Palestine, 26 October 26 2015, <>

[14] DNA, India for Palestine, 19 January 2016, <>