Chinmaya Gharekhan explains: India and the Palestinians, over the years – The Indian Express

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has told his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu that the “people of India stand in solidarity with Israel in this difficult hour”. Soon after the Hamas assault began on Saturday, Modi had expressed deep shock at “the news of [the] terrorist attacks”. It was only yesterday, that the MEA statement mentioned Palestinians for the first time.
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.
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 — 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 — or should translate — into maintaining good relations with Israel as well as keeping up support for Palestine and further developing relations with the Arab world.
India is closer today to Israel than ever before. Prime Ministers Modi and Netanyahu seem to be friends at a personal level. 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. After all, what have the Arab nations done for us with regards to Kashmir? In fact, 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.
That said, 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.
The Palestinians will not be happy — they have not been happy about India’s growing closeness to Israel for a while. But India need not worry about a backlash from the rest of the Arab world.
Regimes in Arab countries have lost interest in the Palestinian cause. Countries such as Saudi Arabia want to normalise relations with Israel. While the Hamas attack will bring back the issue of Palestine in conversations on the Arab street, and may indeed revive popular support for the cause, it is unlikely to affect India’s relationship with these countries. No Arab country will stop trading with India, or will suddenly become an enemy because of New Delhi’s seemingly pro-Israel stance.
Chimaya Gharekhan was India’s Permanent Representative to the UN. He was appointed by the UN Secretary General as a special envoy to the Middle East peace process from 1993 to 1999. He was India’s special envoy to the Middle East from 2005 to 2009. His latest book, Centres of Power: My Years in the Prime Minister’s Office and Security Council, was published in June 2023.
Arjun Sengupta read more


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