How India can maintain its delicate Israel-Palestine balancing act

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Neutrality makes Delhi a more valuable diplomatic partner.

When President Pranab Mukherjee visited a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem during the latest wave of unrest, he was greeted by protesters with placards politely critiquing India’s growing ties with Israel. In a region characterised by seemingly intractable hatred and spiraling violence, the mildness of the protest was redolent of an old friend disappointed with India’s choice of new partners.

The President’s visit to Palestine, Jordan and Israel brings to a head the tension between India’s long tradition of supporting the Palestinian cause and the more recent burgeoning ties with Tel Aviv. This is underpinned by a confluence of competing values and interests driving India’s Middle East policy: Third World solidarity, non-violence, domestic politics, and expanding strategic and economic interests. Another key driver of Indian policy coming under pressure was revealed in a statement by Mukherjee that “Our bilateral relations [with Israel] are independent of our relations with Palestine”. This driver is India’s tradition of neutrality – being a “friend-to-all” and keeping individual relationships free from entangling alliances.

Tradition of Solidarity

For most of the period since independence, India identified with the Palestinian struggle, spurred by a mix of anti-colonial solidarity with Arab states and commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement. India voted against Israel’s entry into the UN, and voted for Zionism to be condemned alongside racism. Despite this, New Delhi also projected an image of neutrality, recognising the state of Israel in 1950. At the social level, India was known as one of the friendliest destinations for Israeli tourists.

Post Cold War, Delhi furthered this neutral image.  India became the first non-Arab state to recognise Palestine in 1988 and subsequently established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 after consulting with Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat.

Ties under the BJP and Modi

In recent decades India strengthened ties with Israel, including buying arms. And while under Congress the relationship was kept discreet, the BJP’s ideology-driven rhetoric was decidedly pro-Israel. The first Israeli PM’s visit to India had been under the BJP when Ariel Sharon came to Delhi in 2003. The current Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, was chair of Parliament’s Israel Friendship group and is said to admire Golda Meir.

Modi’s political history would suggest further definitive leaning toward Israel. He had visited the country as chief minister of Gujarat. As PM, gestures toward Israel were arguably Modi’s biggest ideological departure from Congress on Middle East policy. He met Prime Minister Netanyahu at the UN (where he could have also tried to meet with the Palestinian President Abbas but didn’t) and met Israeli President Shimon Peres in Singapore. Back in June, Modi also made highly publicised plans to visit Israel, becoming the first Indian PM to do so.

Beyond ideology, there are strategic and economic interests pushing Delhi toward Israel. The two states face similar non-state security threats. India has bought $662 million of Israeli arms since Modi’s election. Indian and Israeli lobby groups work together in the US and have mutual interests such as in convincing Washington to allow Tel Aviv to sell American technology-based weapons systems to Delhi. Annual bilateral trade is around $5 billion with a potential free trade deal touted to double this year. India also aspires to match Israel’s high-tech economy.

Recent gear change

Recently, however, Modi seems to have become uncharacteristically cautious about Israel ties. Delhi is delaying announcement of firm dates for the PM’s visit and has instead sent the President. The President’s position is largely ceremonial and Mukherjee is a former senior Congress minister, a party seen as friendlier to the Palestinians than the BJP. Before his visit, President Mukherjee even quoted Mahatma Gandhi’s statement that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English…”. Tel Aviv was said to have been so concerned at the delay of PM’s visit that Netanyahu sent his most trusted aide to get answers.

The fall in momentum may be due to several factors. Firstly, the state of Bihar is heading to elections. The BJP suffered recent losses and electorally important Bihar is seen as a test of Modi’s popularity. The state has a higher than average proportion of Muslims, meaning the PM will be weary of his image. This is accentuated by the recent violence in Israel and Palestine which would ensure greater scrutiny of Modi’s Israel stance if he announced dates for a visit.

Furthermore, while the Palestinians cannot provide India trade or military technology like Israel can, there are certain strategic gains for India of not alienating them. India is seeking permanent UN Security Council membership, requiring support from the Arab world and developing countries more broadly. India’s strategic interests in ties with Gulf Arab states and Iran are also expanding with growing foreign energy dependence and the increasing multipolarity of the Middle East resulting in competition with China. These are of course in addition to the BJP’s perennial need to win over more to Muslim voters, thereby continuing the older Congress-era template of calibrating the diplomatic message on Palestine with domestic political needs.

Geostrategic shifts in the region also mean Tel Aviv will be desperate for stronger ties with Delhi largely regardless of how much diplomatic support India gives to the Palestinians. The latest developments have seen Israel’s strategic advantage in the region fall slightly with the economic unshackling of Iran following the nuclear deal and with Russia making clear it will intervene to buttress its allies like Assad, providing relief for Hezbollah and Iran.

There is also a longer-term trend that will further Israel’s need for new Great Power partners. This is the reduction of US interest and relative influence in the region, combined with greater assertiveness of China and Russia in supporting current and potential future clients. Ties with India will also draw less concern from Washington, than building ties with say China or Russia. A case in point was Washington vetoing Tel Aviv’s transfer of certain defence technology to Beijing.

Expanding strategic and economic stakes mean that Delhi will find it increasingly difficult to always be a “friend to all”.  But the evolving reality in the region ensures that India has greater leverage than before. The optimal balance of the competing drivers of India’s Middle East policy may indeed result in continuing a somewhat neutral stand. We’ve seen some of this recently with India’s call for the UN Security Council to take steps to resolve the current violence.

Neutrality makes Delhi a more valuable diplomatic partner, giving India more leverage with Israel, Palestine, Arab states and Iran. If Modi can accurately gauge the value Middle Eastern countries place on ties with Delhi, it could be possible to achieve India’s interests while still adhering to its values.

Kadira Pethiyagoda is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Brookings Doha Center, and a former diplomat.

This article first appeared in on October 26, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.