Much against the known voting pattern dealing with Israel-Palestine issues in multilateral bodies like the UN, India, for the first time on June 6th, voted in favour of the decision proposed by Israel to deny the observer status to Shahed, a Palestinian NGO, at the UN’s Economic and Social Council along with countries such as the US, France, Germany, Japan, the UK, South Korea and Canada.
This pro-Israeli vote obviously made the media to comment that this move is ‘unprecedented’, ‘rare’ and some even considered this as a beginning of watering down India’s “decades old position on the two state theory”. Israel, on the other hand, welcomed it while its Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu personally thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for India’s supporting vote.
This raises a battery of questions: Is this move, as the media termed, a realignment of India’s policy towards Israel and Palestine? Is this an effective indicator of a shift in India’s policy? Is India truly becoming independent-enough to pursue its own geo-political interests without getting bogged down by age-old sentiments?
To better appreciate these questions and the answers thereof, we need to first take a look at the hitherto practised India’s Israeli policy. It is Mahatma Gandhi, who with his grandeur of soul and its moral authority, steadfast purity of purpose and service had become the father of the nation, whose thoughts indeed constituted the very signposts of post-independent India.
One such guiding post is his opinion on the Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine. In the context of The League of Nations conferring on Britain a mandate to administer Palestine and to assist in the creation thereof a Jewish homeland, Gandhi favoured a consensus in Palestine. He categorically stated in his article of 1938 in Harijan that “the cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me.” Instead, he wanted a consensus not on the partition of Palestine but on a common citizenship and political compromise in an undivided Palestine, for he believed that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French”.
This view of Gandhi on Palestine conflict that emerged in the intervening period of two World Wars is one aspect of his political philosophy that has somehow not attracted much attention from the current crop of intellectuals/researchers engaged in studying international affairs. There is, of course, a strong opinion among those concerned with the issue that Gandhi had reasons of his own for favouring consensus on Palestine issue. According to this school of thought, one compelling reason for Gandhi to air such an opinion could have been the mounting domestic challenge of creating harmony and concord among the two major Indian communities, Hindus and Muslims, which was a must for Gandhi during India’s freedom-movement. Another reason that often came into light is the request of Indian Muslims to the Indian Congress to extend support to Ottoman Caliph, who at the end of First World War lost temporal jurisdiction on Palestine.
This struggle of Gandhi to build unity among the major communities and thereby withstand the bitter contest emanating from Jinnah and his Muslim league (Simone Painter-Brick, 2009) to remain as the sole spokesman of India’s freedom-movement appeared to have compelled him to favour a consensus in Palestine.
There is yet another opinion which was of course not that frequently heard of: Kumaraswamy (2017) wondered if the pursuit of galvanizing the Hindu-Muslim unity and the “oversensitivity towards the religious minority” deprived Gandhi the analytical clarity over the Palestine issue. According to him, Gandhi, though said that “his sympathies are with the Jews” harboured antipathy to the Zionist cause, perhaps, more out of his political compulsions rather than any ethical or moral dictates of his political philosophy.
Irrespective of these arguments, the fact remains that it is Gandhi’s opinion which had defined independent India’s foreign policy—its principled solidarity with the Palestine cause had not allowed Israeli embassy to come up in New Delhi for the first 45 years after the independence. But once diplomatic ties were established, India’s relations with Israel had undergone significant transition. In the recent past, this relationship has indeed appeared to be on a positive trajectory.
With the recent visit of Israeli President to India and the visit of India’s Prime minister for the first time to Israel has further consolidated defence ties, technological relations and political links between the two. This growing proximity of India towards Israel, particularly, India’s deepening military and strategic engagement subtly points out that Indian foreign policy is slowly turning out to be dictated by its geopolitical concerns rather than meekly submitting to one leader’s dictum. Indeed, Indo-Israel relations have reached a new high under the present government, for it has de-hyphenated India's relationship with Israel from Palestine. Today, India has become a top customer of Israel's defense industry with an annual bill of $ 1 bn.
Now, reverting to the India’s June 6th vote, one must be candid-enough to admit that this vote is a significant message from India to the effect that it is willing to take an independent stand on each issue based on its own merits rather than going by an all-encompassing policy dictum. In the instant case India, perhaps guided by the fact that the said NGO, as Israel said, did not disclose its ties with Hamas, which has been described by many European countries as a terrorist organization, had chosen to vote differently. Hence this vote needs to be contextualised for right analysis, for as early as on December 6, 2018, India voted against Israel’s position by supporting a Resolution for the “achievement, without delay, of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East on the basis of the relevant United Nations resolutions”.
Nevertheless, the ongoing transition in Indo-Israel relationship reveals the fact of India trying to balance its relationship with Israel with its historical support to the Palestine cause. The recent high-level official visits between the two countries though reveals growing strategic military and economic cooperation between India and Israel, one must admit that India is still taking all the precautions not to antagonize Arab countries. In short, this balancing act merely indicates that there is no reversal in India’s relationship policies with Israel but only managing the relationship cautiously issue by issue, of course, with a focus on its geopolitical interests. A new dawn, perhaps!