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Can India Navigate Between Israel and Palestine?

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New Delhi, India © Jan Willem van Hofwegen

January 24, 2018 21:05 EDT

India could benefit from strengthening its ties with Israel, but it must not isolate Palestine and its supporters among the OIC countries.

Traditionally, India adheres to the bilateral approach in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dealing with both sides on equal terms in advocating peaceful coexistence for a two-state solution. Despite formally recognizing Israel in 1950 and having full diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, India maintains crucial cultural and commercial relationships with Palestine and other Arab countries. India has, to some extent, managed to maintain an equilibrium by not taking sides in the conflict over the demarcation of boundaries or the crimes committed by both sides.

A new political landscape that took shape after the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of China as a global power means that India must associate with the United States. This is to address the challenges related to its demand for arms in the face of hostility from neighboring rivals such as Pakistan and China. The volatile situation in Kashmir and cross-border terrorism are among India’s main concerns, with the US and Israel openly supporting its stand, while the Arab world and the alliance of Muslim-majority countries, called the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), have stood with Pakistan and blamed India for atrocities committed in Kashmir. Therefore, close relations with Israel and the US could be a desirable solution for India to survive politically in a transforming world.

Considering the advantages of fomenting close ties with Israel, the relationship between the two countries blossomed during the Indian National Congress party’s government under V.P. Narashima Rao in 1992. During the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tenure in government, which is widely known for its soft stand toward Israel, the relationship really got off the ground.

Both visits by Israeli prime ministers to India — that by Ariel Sharon in 2003 and Benjamin Netanyahu in January 2018 — were hosted by the BJP government, while a leftist alliance and the Indian Muslim community oppose any relationship with Israel over the latter’s imperialistic policies against Palestine. Netanyahu’s recent visit marked the occasion of commemorating 25 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi having already visited Israel in July 2017.

Nine agreements across the fields of cybersecurity, transportation, energy, film production and investment were signed during this latest meeting. Bilateral visits by the heads of both states would certainly bolster trade and investment and, most importantly, defense. As per the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report for 2016, India’s arms trade with Israel has increased by 117%, from $276 million in 2015 to $599 million in 2016. India imports 48% of Israel’s total arms exports. Russia is still the largest exporter of arms to India, contributing 62% of all imports, but Israel has emerged as the second largest at 24%.

A major shift toward Israel has taken place since the formation of the current BJP government, bolstered by Modi’s 2017 trip to Israel that did not include Palestine and by India’s abstention from a vote against Israel at the UN Human Rights Council in 2015. This was followed, most recently, by the enthusiastic welcome given to Netanyahu and the renaming of Teen Murti Chowk war memorial in New Delhi to include the Israeli city of Haifa to commemorate Indian soldiers’ liberation of the city from the Ottomans during the First World War. This approach could cause further isolation of India among OIC countries and would provide an opportunity to its arch-rival to find parallels between and equate the issues of Kashmir and Palestine.

Further, OIC countries have the potential to claim some 30% of India’s total trade. According to the Ministry of Commerce figures for the 2016-17 financial year, India’s volume of trade with Arab countries stands at $200 billion, which includes $81 billion in exports and imports of $119 billion. These countries are also a source of remittance inflows to India and fulfill its petroleum needs, with 82% of crude oil being imported from OIC nations.

Considering the commercial advantages of cooperation with Arab and OIC countries, India cannot afford to ignore the issue of Palestine. Therefore, its vote against the US and Israel in the passing of a UN General Assembly resolution denouncing the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel did not surprise political pundits.

Despite differences over Kashmir, OIC countries individually retain close ties with India and support its security concerns over terrorism. Palestine’s swift decision to recall its envoy from Pakistan after he was reported to be in the company of Hafiz Saeed, the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba (an organization linked to the 2008 Mumbai bombings), reflects the bond of its friendship with India. Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to visit the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Palestine in February to show solidarity with the Arab world.

India could benefit from strengthening its ties with Israel, but it must not isolate Palestine and its supporters among the OIC countries. Solidifying India’s position in relation to both Israel and Palestine means it can play a role as a mediator in the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit:y Jan Willem van Hofwegen /

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