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Indians face a dilemma over Israel

by Harsh V. Pant

There have been strong reactions in India about the Israeli actions in Gaza. The Indian Parliament has been vociferous in its condemnation. Calling for suspension of military purchases from Israel, an Indian parliamentarian has suggested that “India cannot be a party to this genocide.”

Demanding that the Parliament pass a resolution condemning the attacks, Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad attacked the government saying it was regrettable that New Delhi did not raise its voice against the “massacre.”

Where one member wanted India to raise the issue at the United Nations, another called for a “categorical stand condemning Israel.”

Couched in the humanitarian concern for the plight of Gaza residents, the opposition did its best to insinuate that because of the BJP government, religious motives cannot be far behind.

In her reply, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj reminded her opposition colleagues that India’s relations with Palestine and Israel are a legacy of previous governments, including the Congress-led UPA government of the recent past. She suggested that Indian lawmakers encourage both sides to return to the negotiating table and revisit an Egypt-brokered cease-fire agreement that the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas had earlier rejected.

A day later, however, India along with other BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa) voted in support of a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution to launch a probe into Israel’s offensive on Gaza.

Despite Congress party’s breast-beating, the reality remains that there has been a steady strengthening of India’s relationship with Israel ever since the two established full diplomatic relations in 1992. In contrast to the back-channel security ties that existed before normalization of relations, India has been more willing in recent years to carve out a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship with Israel, including deepening military ties and countering the threat terrorism poses to both societies.

Before 1992, India had made normalization of relations with Israel 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 its relations with Israel. This was in tune with the policy much of the world was already following.

Over the years, the Indian government has also toned down its reactions to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. India has also begun denouncing Palestinian suicide bombings and other terrorist acts in Israel, something that was seen earlier as rather justified in light of the Israeli policies against the Palestinians. India is no longer initiating anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N. and has made serious attempts to moderate anti-Israel resolutions.

This re-evaluation has been based on a realization that India’s largely pro-Arab stance in the Middle East has not been adequately rewarded by the Arab world. India has received no worthwhile backing from Arab countries in the resolution of problems it faces in its neighborhood, especially Kashmir.

There have been no serious attempts by the Arab world to put pressure on Pakistan to rein in the cross-border insurgency in Kashmir. On the contrary, Arab nations have firmly stood by Pakistan, using the Organization of Islamic Conference to build support for Islamabad and the jihadi groups in Kashmir. 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 maneuvering.

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 its commercial and defense ties with Israel.

The domestic political milieu continues to exert its substantial influence on the trajectory of India-Israel relations. Israel has been a good friend to India, but New Delhi continues to be shy of demonstrating its friendship. At crucial times, when India needed Israeli help, it got it unreservedly.

Israel was willing to continue and even step up its arms sales to India after other major states curbed their technological exports following India’s May 1998 nuclear tests. Israel provided India much-needed imagery about Pakistani positions using its unmanned aerial vehicles during the Kargil War with Pakistan in 1999, which was 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 India and Israel face comes not only from disaffected groups within their territories; it is also aided and abetted by neighboring states, increasingly capable of transferring weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organizations. When extremist mullahs call upon their followers to take up arms in support of an Islamic jihad, their foremost exhortations have always been the “liberation” of all of mandatory Palestine, Kashmir and the annihilation of the United States.

Yet, there are differences of perception between India and Israel on the issue of terrorism. 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 Pakistan normalizing its relations with Israel at some future date.

Indian foreign policy faces conflicting choices in the Middle East, 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 in the region, but the conflicting imperative of continuing to strengthen its ties with Israel while courting other states in the region, especially Iran, will be a tough task indeed for Indian diplomacy.

This is what was reflected in the most recent debate in the Indian Parliament on Israel as well as in India’s decision to vote against Israel at the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Harsh V. Pant is a professor of international relations at King’s College London.