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5 August 2014, Gateway Features

Tracing the course of India-Israel ties

There has been strong criticism of the Modi government’s tepid response towards Israel’s offensive in Gaza, with many insinuating religious reasons. However the reality is that India’s engagement with Israel has grown substantially since the two countries established full diplomatic relations in 1992.

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The Israel-Palestine conflict was one of the first issues that independent India had to deal with in the UN – apart from the dispute over Kashmir and apartheid, both of which India had taken up in the UN. A few days before the crucial vote in the General Assembly, Jawaharlal Nehru received a letter from Albert Einstein requesting India’s support for the resolution proposing the partition of Palestine. Nehru answered that India could not support this and cited reasons of national interest. Perhaps he was influenced by our own experience of partition. He strongly favoured a federation of two states, with a special regime for Jerusalem for a period of 10 years, to be followed by a referendum.

India recognised the state of Israel soon after it was created in 1948 but it did not establish diplomatic relations.  It seems Nehru was inclined to set up a legation in Israel, but refrained under pressure from Maulana Azad. The fact that King Farouk of Egypt voted against India in the Security Council on the question of Hyderabad is said to have influenced Nehru who was inclined to be neutral – with a tilt towards the Arabs, without being hostile to Israel. At the same time, he observed that we need to make it clear to the Arabs that we are not going to follow them in everything they do – a sentiment shared by many in India ever since.

Until the 1967 war, India’s general policy remained one of support towards the Palestinian cause. After 1967 the position changed to a pro- Arab one. As a member of the UNSC, India was active in the backroom negotiations which culminated in Resolution 242 under which Israel was asked to withdraw from ‘territories occupied’ in the war implying, that Israel need not withdraw from all the occupied territories.

It was during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister that India adopted a decidedly pro-Palestine stance. Gandhi was inclined to be more hard-line towards the U.S., no doubt influenced by the rabidly anti-India stance adopted by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger during the Bangladesh crisis.  The pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli stance flowed from the strong support extended by the U.S. towards Israel. She had a good relationship with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO, although it was not as special as Arafat who referred to her as ‘my sister’ liked to claim.

During Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as PM India was most vocal in its support for the Palestine cause. When Israel bombarded Palestinian camps in Lebanon in the 80s, he deputed external affairs Minister Baliram Bhagat to take part in the debate at the UNSC where India condemned the bombardment in strong terms. When the PLO took the historic decision in 1988 to accept the two-state solution and announced the formation of Palestine, India was the first non-Arab country to recognise it.

The Janata government took the first tentative steps towards according diplomatic recognition to Israel. The consulate in Bombay was upgraded, and the consul general was permitted to visit Delhi to meet officials. Israel’s defence minister paid a hush-hush visit to Delhi and met our ministers. If the government had lasted the full term, it would almost certainly have moved further in this direction.

Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao announced the establishment of full diplomatic relations.  This was preceded by India supporting the UN resolution annulling the 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism. Rao was somewhat hesitant in making up his mind about the resolution and personally spoke twice to the writer who happened to be the Permanent Representative to the UN at the time.  He had obviously reached the conclusion that the Muslim community in India was so well integrated with the mainstream that they would not react too negatively. Perhaps significantly, India’s action followed shortly after China announced diplomatic relations with Israel.

The first term of the NDA government saw the expansion of India-Israel relations in several fields, including defence. The fact that Israel supplied, albeit at market price, much needed ammunition to India during the Kargil War, was no doubt an important consideration. India continued to extend her support to the Palestinian cause, although the intensity had diminished.

The UPA government, during its ten years in government, vastly expanded relations with Israel, especially in the defence sector and this undoubtedly had some impact on India’ stand on Palestine.  While India continued to vote in favour of the UN resolutions, it stopped co-sponsoring many of them. The UPA also appointed a special envoy for West Asia in the person of this writer. It financed the construction of the Palestine embassy in Delhi, but its enthusiasm for the Palestine cause had waned, as evidenced by the moderate language used during Israel’s attacks on Gaza.

NDA II is still in its early stage. Its stance on the Palestine-Israel problem will become clearer in the months to come, but one ought not to be surprised if it is the reverse of what Nehru had said – neutral, with a tilt towards Israel but without being hostile to Palestine.

Chinmaya Gharekhan was India’s Permanent Representative to the UN. He was the special envoy of India to the Middle East from 2005-2009

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