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It’s Time to Rethink India’s Policy on Palestine

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New Delhi, India © Tatiana Dyuvbanova

April 19, 2018 06:01 EDT

There is hardly any reason for India to not prioritize its partnership with Israel over Palestine in pursuit of its strategic interests.

On various occasions, India’s diffidence, indecisiveness and a highly constrained foreign policy have perplexed international relations experts. In one such instance, India’s vote in favor of Palestine against the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem in December 2017 has brought into question the motivations behind India’s stance on the Israel-Palestine issue and its foreign policy in general. The decision presents a good opportunity to explore the geopolitical subconscious of India, where the existing policy on Palestine appears in need of a serious rethinking.

Since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, India has taken a firm and principled stance against the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel. India has historically favored an independent, sovereign and united Palestine coexisting peacefully with Israel. However, the post-Cold War changes in global power equations and a sense of pragmatism in pursing national interests led India to open official diplomatic channels with Israel. Unofficially, India had ties with Israel since 1962, but it always maintained calibrated neutrality between Israel and Palestine. On critical occasions, Israel came to India’s rescue, such as during the Kargil War in 1999.

However, with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, India has perceptibly inched closer to Israel, initiating active diplomatic engagement in the critical sectors of defense, agriculture, IT and education. Additionally, India’s stance against Islamic extremism and terrorism also fits well with the Israel’s narrative on the issue. In the current geopolitical discourse, experts predict a robust Indo-US partnership as a stepping-stone to the emergence of India as a world power and a counterweight against China in Asia. With this in mind, has India made a policy blunder? It is important to understand where Indian interests lie. There are two key points to understand.

A Policy Blunder?

First, India has strong commercial ties with Arab countries, notably the Gulf Cooperation Council. In 2016-17, India’s trade with Arab countries stood at 18.5%; with Israel, it was less than 1%. However, business is a two-way street. Since India buys oil from Arab states, they would not want to lose the revenues. If remittances are crucial for India, then migrant Indian labor is also essential for the Gulf states. Second, India is concerned about losing Iran as an ally if New Delhi sides with Tel Aviv when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran, however, has never backed India when it comes to Kashmir. In fact, Iran Times reported that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei mentioned Kashmir along with Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq as places where Muslims are oppressed by the occupying powers.

India does not need to worry about the Islamic Republic as the latter is facing diplomatic isolation and the threat of further international sanctions pushed forward by US President Donald Trump. On the domestic front, the regime in Tehran faces a disgruntled population. Economic logic dictates that Iran needs India as it cannot afford to lose a significant buyer of its oil. Despite a significant drop in oil imports from Iran in 2017, there is speculation this may change in 2018. Iran has stakes in Chahbahar Port project, which India has to still build. Hence, Iran has all the reasons to keep India in the good books.

If Pakistan has no qualms in aligning with the US, and Saudi Arabia has no hesitations aligning with Israel against Iran, then there is hardly any reason for India to not prioritize its partnership with Israel over Palestine in pursuit of its strategic interests. Further, India has done impressive reconstruction work in Afghanistan without military intervention, so Afghanistan is expected to to be amenable to India’s concerns and security needs.

Several Indian diplomats have told this analyst in private conversations that India does not want to be seen as a pliant state controlled by a hegemonic power like the US. Guarding autonomy in foreign policy has always been a paramount ideal for India’s diplomatic community. Twelve hundred years of foreign rule and post-independence world order that presented a stark a choice between two power blocs strengthened India’s fears and transformed the idea of autonomy into a kind of compulsive disorder, which became deeply entrenched in India’s geopolitical subconscious. Shairee Malhotra, a researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies, states in The Diplomat that “Despite its shift from idealism to pragmatism, India’s erstwhile tradition of following an autonomous foreign policy free from the interference of external powers continues to underpin present-day decision making.”

However, it seems that guarding its autonomy has made India highly impervious to change, and its strategic thinking is stuck in the Cold War mindset. A closer analysis reveals that India’s Palestine policy reflects an acute absence of political independence. This is supported by the fact that before the UN vote, Arab envoys met with Indian officials from the Ministry of External Affairs to make the case, apparently successfully, for India take their side.

Balancing Power

India’s other obsession is with normative posturing. This means seeking acceptance and recognition even at the cost of core national interests. Some diplomats and analysts tend to believe that India has deftly executed the delicate balance in the Middle East by nurturing a strong partnership with Israel while simultaneously keeping relations with the Arab world amicable by continuing its long-term commitment to the Palestinian cause. However, such a belief is based on wishful thinking. Geopolitical compulsions may convince Israel and US to nurture friendships with India, keeping in mind the long-term security concerns of the Middle East and South Asia. This may happen even at the cost of India’s indecisiveness and hesitation to openly ally with the US and Israel, but it conveys a message that India is not a trustworthy ally.

One of America’s top India experts, Ashely J. Tallis, has categorized India as a conservative power with a defensive foreign policy, lacking a proactive approach. Hence, India’s position on Palestine is indeed not going to be beneficial to its long-term partnership with US and Israel. Some argue that India’s position is solid realpolitik, as siding with Israel would cost India the goodwill it generated in Afghanistan through its soft power, as well as undermined its relationship with Iran and the Gulf. For Tufail Ahmad, a senior fellow at Middle East Media Research Institute, India has aligned with its enemies, China and Pakistan, ahead of its friends, Israel and the US.

On deeper analysis, the underlying themes of India’s strategic mindset seem to be at play: an unjustified fear of losing policy independence; a colonial and Cold War era hangover; a strong desire to portray itself as a moral force even at the cost of its strategic interests; status-quo mindset with a strong tendency to avoid decision that may reflect a break from the past.

After witnessing Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s keen interest in transforming India from a “balancing power” to a leading power in global affairs, the notion of a Modi doctrine symbolizing a pragmatic foreign policy had gained currency. India’s abstention from UNHRC’s vote against Israel in 2015, attempts to moderate anti-Israel resolutions at Non-Aligned Movement summit, Modi’s visit to Israel, surgical strikes against Pakistan, a bold stand on terrorism and closer ties with the US had raised hopes that India is finally emerging as a proactive player. But recent decision-making has undermined all the conjectures about the new Modi doctrine symbolizing major departures from the past and India’s coming of age.

Overall, India comes across as a passive and indecisive actor wary of acting in its own right, thereby making a sheer display of the lack of faith in its own potential and capabilities. A nation that is extremely uneasy with emerging from of its comfort zone, eager to join the bandwagon of international consensus without giving a thought to its own strategic priorities and interests is not much of a contender for a stronger geostrategic position in the new world order.

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

Photo Credit: Tatiana Dyuvbanova /

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