India – Israel – Palestine Relationship

History of India- Israel ties: Post-Independence Period

  • India’s political stance toward Israel was firmly established shortly after gaining independence in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi made a resolute commitment to support the Palestinian cause while rejecting the notion of a religious-based division into two nations.
  • India’s position with regard to Palestine was also guided by the general consensus in the Arab world, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the United Nations. 
  • When the partition of Palestine plan was put to vote at the UN, India voted against, along with the Arab countries. When Israel applied for admission to the UN, India again voted against. 
  • New Delhi, however, recognised Israel on September 17, 1950, after two Muslim-majority countries, Turkey and Iran, did so. In 1953, Israel was allowed to open a consulate in Mumbai, but no diplomatic presence was granted in New Delhi. 
  • India developed its engagement with the largest political grouping under PLO, Al Fatah in the late 1960s and early 70s, with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) emerging as the representative of the people of Palestine under Yasser Arafat,
  • On January 10, 1975, India recognised PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and permitted an independent office at New Delhi.  While India was one of the last non-Muslim states to recognise Israel, it became the first non-Arab state to recognise the PLO. 

Post Emergency period

  • In 1980, when Indira Gandhi returned to power, she continued her support to the Palestinian struggle. India upgraded the PLO office to that of an embassy endowed with all diplomatic immunities and privileges. 
  • Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President, became a frequent visitor to Delhi through the early 80s, and the relationship between India and Palestine strengthened. 
  • In March 1983, when the NAM summit took place in India, it came up with a strong statement of solidarity for Palestine. In April 1984, PM Indira Gandhi visited Arafat’s headquarters in Tunis after a state visit to Libya. When she was assassinated six months later, Arafat attended the funeral and wept in public. 
  • Rajiv Gandhi continued with India’s approach towards Palestine, and throughout the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada (uprising) in December 1987 in Gaza and West Bank due to the ‘iron fist’ policies of Israel, India maintained its steadfast support. 

Why was India’s diplomatic policy leaned towards Palestine in the initial years? 

  • India voted against UN Resolution 181 (II) in 1947, which partitioned Mandatory Palestine between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru preferred a federal state instead, with Arabs and Jews enjoying the widest possible autonomy, with a special status for Jerusalem. 
  • Nehru inherited this perspective from Mahatma Gandhi who, while deeply sympathetic towards the Jewish people for the historical persecution they had faced, was opposed to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. He felt it would be unjust towards the 600,000 Arabs who already lived there. Nehru also blamed British imperialism for the problem in Palestine. 
  • After the State of Israel came into existence, a couple of factors coloured India’s perspective. Though India recognized Israel in 1950 it did not establish diplomatic relations until 1992. India was home to a sizable Muslim population. After Partition, Indian leaders were particularly sensitive to their opinion — and Muslims in India, by and large, were sympathetic towards the Arabs. Also, Indian leaders were wary of alienating the Arab countries; Pakistan was firmly in support of Palestine, and India had to match that stance. 

Shifts in India’s Palestine Policy

  • There were critics of New Delhi’s Palestine policy and its outright support to the Arab world within India. The Arab countries’ neutral position during the 1962 India-China war and their support to Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars did not go down well with many. On the other hand, Israel helped India with arms and ammunition in the 1962 and 1965 wars. 
  • Things changed in West Asia when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The PLO lost its political leverage on account of its support to Saddam Hussain. Around that time, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and this prompted India to make drastic changes in its policy towards West Asia. 
  • India established full diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1992, days after the Chinese established diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. 
  • The end of the Cold War weakened the Non-Aligned Movement and reduced the ideological hostility towards Israel. 

Did establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel alter India’s support for the Palestinians? 

  • India’s reluctance to establish diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992 should be seen in the context of Cold War dynamics. During the Cold War, the West, especially the Americans, were firmly behind Israel, and thus the Soviets had come out in support of the Arabs. India, which despite its non-aligned position found itself tilted towards the Soviets, simply thought it had very little choice but to continue with its pro-Palestine stance. 
  • It was only after the end of the Cold War that the government of P V Narasimha Rao finally took the extremely bold decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, without caring about the fallout with the Arab countries. However, Prime Minister Rao also continued to show vocal support for the Palestinians as he in no way abandoned India’s principled policy of backing the Palestinian cause. 
  • At the end of the day, diplomatic decisions are made based on national interest. This translates into maintaining good relations with Israel as well as keeping up support for Palestine and further developing relations with the Arab world. 

Emerging Military Ties with Israel during the Kargil War

  • The establishment of full diplomatic ties with Israel came in especially handy during the Kargil conflict in 1999. The Indian Air Force desperately needed precision target bombs as Pakistani intruders were hiding in caves and bunkers atop mountains in Kargil. The IAF reached out to their Israeli counterparts for help. They dug into their emergency stockpiles and shipped the weapons to India, which proved to be decisive
  • Vajpayee government sent Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh for the first bilateral visit in 2000 followed by Home Minister L K Advani.
  • During PM’s visit to Israel in 2017 which was the first Prime Ministerial visit , he skipped the customary stop at Palestine, which was the norm with previous ministerial visits. 
  • New Delhi hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in May 2017. In all public pronouncements, South Block officials maintained India’s position on its support towards the Palestinian cause. PM later visited Palestine in February 2018, but didn’t visit Israel — achieving a complete dehyphenation of the ties. 

Ties in the present scenario

  • In the last decade or so, ties have deepened in security, defence, and connectivity with Israel, but also with partners in West Asia , like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Iran. 
  • The Indian strategic approach to engage with all sides in the complex West Asian region is born out of necessity: the  90 lakh-strong Indian community in the region and connectivity to West Asia and Europe. Crucially, more than 50% of India’s energy imports are sourced from West Asia. 
  • The spate of horrifying surprise attacks puts India in a diplomatic tight spot. This is because the current hostility tests the Abraham Accords and the efforts towards rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which held the promise of reshaping age-old fault lines in the Middle East. India was hoping to reap the dividends of the newfound peace in the region. 

Closeness to Israel in recent times

  • India is closer today to Israel than ever before. India and Israel have also developed a close economic relationship, especially in the defence sector, where India is one of Israel’s biggest clients. 
  • What has changed in India’s relationship with the Palestinians is its overt rhetoric in support of Palestine. India has definitely toned that down in recent years, especially in fora such as the United Nations. 
  • There is a feeling that India’s pro-Palestine stance over the years has not yielded dividends in terms of national interest. Palestine has often offered unqualified support to Pakistan on the issue [of Kashmir]. 
  • There might also be an ideological element to India’s recent support of Israel. Many in India applaud Israel’s firm riposte to the rocket and missile attacks from the Gaza strip, but mistakenly interpret it as anti-Islamic action. Israel is considered by many Indians as an example to follow in dealing with cross-border terrorist attacks. But it is important to keep in mind that our situations are not alike — Israel is dealing with an extremely weak adversary, unlike Pakistan which is a strong military power and has a nuclear arsenal. 
  • Yet, India’s formal position remains unchanged — India supports the two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side as good neighbours. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Ramallah in the West Bank in 2018, becoming the first Indian PM to do so.

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