India-Israel:Where does Palestine fit in?

Third-year Georgetown student, Anya Bharadwaj, considers the implications of the strengthening relationship between the dynamic duo, India and Israel, in the theatre of world politics and, specifically, on the Palestine question. 

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India and Israel have had an ongoing romance dating back to 1992 that recently celebrated its silver jubilee. As they celebrate their anniversary by strengthening their strategic ties in defense, counterterrorism, science, technology, finance and agriculture, they reaffirm their commitment to each other. While they continue to build on their relationship, it is interesting to consider the Palestinian question. India, can we eat our cake and have it too?  


As both countries gained independence from the British and stepped into the Cold War era, India chose to maintain close ties to the USSR while Israel received strong backing from the US. In the post-Cold War era with the collapse of the USSR, India quickly shifted its foreign policy to build ties with the emerging US hegemon in a unipolar world. In doing so, New Delhi conceded to IMF demands and established full diplomatic relations with Washington’s beloved Israel project. This was followed dramatically by India’s 1998 nuclear test leading to the subsequent US sanctions on the sales of military defense equipment to India. This US spigot swiftly paved the way for Israel to become the leading arms bazaar for India. Today, India purchases half of Israel’s arms exports, which costs billions of dollars annually – making Israel one of its most important strategic allies.


Bearing this in mind, India was ranked as the most pro-Israel country in the world (according to an opinion survey in 2009 conducted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry). However, India’s position on Palestine is unsettling. India claims to extend “consistent and unwavering support” on the Palestinian issue in light of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Modi maintains India’s foreign policy towards Palestine won’t experience any fundamental change. However, in light of stronger relations with Israel, India’s support has been more lukewarm than ever.


With fresh wounds from the freedom struggle etched in its subconscious, India supported the legitimate and inalienable right of the Palestinian people to an independent state in its post-independence era. Time and again India has declared that the Palestinian cause has its principal support. However, in 2015 India abstained from voting in the UNHCR that approved their Gaza Commission of Inquiry report. While India’s position on Palestine won’t make or break the conflict – it is undoubtedly important.


Firstly, every movement in voting is tracked as an indication of political allegiance. Why not vote “yes” and actively value a commitment to liberate the people of Gaza? This vote was obviously against Palestinian interests. India’s new policy of abstention is in contradiction to its principle struggle against colonization and human rights violations – both of which it has strongly advocated against on various global platforms. The Palestinian envoy in India responded with shock and disappointment at India’s hypocrisy in what it says and does. In doing so, India is reducing itself to the status of an indecisive and inconsistent player in world politics.  Shouldn’t our written and spoken foreign policy translate to our actions?


Secondly, those in power articulate the tone for the nation’s social and political attitude in its domestic and international life. With both right-wing Likud and BJP constituting the core of nationalism in Israel and India, there have been strong sentiments of instinctual apathy towards Muslims in both countries. Emerging from this environment is the popular social media hashtag -  #IndiawithIsrael. While Muslims, particularly Kashmiri groups, held protests at the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi over airstrikes in the Gaza Strip (2014) chanting even more aggressively than ever “Free Palestine”, anti-Muslim Hindus have expressed support for the Jewish state to wipe out the “green menace” from its territory. The BJP has even gone to extreme ends in suppressing discussions about civilian attacks in Gaza in the Lok Sabha. This makes India’s ‘neutrality’ even more unconvincing – it is simply strengthening ties with one side and diluting ties with the other. It gets worse. The NGO ‘Hindus United for Israel’, which was responsible for the hashtag, has done a good job of painting a lopsided picture in favor of the innocent Jews and against the terrorist Muslims. It sympathetically emphasizes Israel as a ‘dear friend’ of India and the Israeli offensive as merely an act of self-defense against Muslim terrorists. Consider the picture to the right to see the misuse of this and how it can be problematic in dividing the country along sectarian lines. By positing Jews and Hindus as natural allies with a “parallel cause” of fighting Islamic terrorism in their nations, it is laying the ground for Hindutva and Zionist propaganda. This hashtag has been used in this manner 25,000 times.


Thirdly, India is Israel’s aide to the Global South. Neither sending aid packages to West Africa nor pleading US allies in Asia has helped Israel break the wall to the Global South. Most of these countries don’t recognize the state of Israel and refuse to condone the basic principle of colonialism that it is perpetuating. They feel an Inherent moral duty of resisting Israel, the colonizer and supporting liberation for Palestine. India is one of the strongest voices in the region and India’s behavior can set an important precedent for other countries. For instance, Sri Lanka too followed India and moved from the “yes” to abstention camp in this UNHRC voting cycle. India, with its strong democratic traditions and active civil society, can be a ‘role model’ for other developing countries according to the Human Rights Watch.


With the rising Hindutva wave, India’s support for the two-state policy has taken a hit. Today it is mocked by right-wing nationalists as outdated “Third Worldism” (for whom anti-colonialism has dwindled into cultural supremacist chest-thumping). To believe that the violence in Gaza was caused by two equal and opposite forces is in itself picking a side (hint: it’s not Palestine). The right-wing politics of India is increasingly speaking up in favor of an unambiguous partisanship towards Israel. For them, the Jewish state dominating the Muslim Middle East is like Hindu India dominating its Muslim neighbours in South Asia. Rising Hindutva propaganda seems to be mirroring an enthusiasm for Zionism in India – both beliefs advocating the existence of holy mythical “purely” Hindu and Jewish homelands while promoting some form of religious hatred towards the “others”.


As the aphorism holds – actions speak louder than words. While Modi has elevated the India-Israel dynamic from an act of infidelity to a full-blown legitimate relationship, has he continued to avow his solidarity towards Palestine? So far, not really. India, whose navy, army and air force are explicitly fed by Israel, should not mix politics with humanity by condoning Israel’s occupation and violence. The saddest part is observing India’s abandonment of its longstanding commitment to supporting the rights of colonized people in their fight for freedom. A notable error in India’s foreign policy currently is the failure to uphold universal and fundamental rights (which it supposedly champions for itself) on the global forum as excuses for a passive response to the Palestinian question seem to be doubling by the day. India can’t continue being mute; that is just perpetuating the violence and suppressing the issue. India should at least attempt to strike the balance between diplomacy and morality instead of easily excusing Israel for its flagrant violations of human rights. Let’s stop worrying more about ethnic, religious and racial differences and look at the big picture. It’s bad enough to be a bystander amongst such violence; it’s even worse when you’re one of the largest democracies in the world that claims respect for all religions. But then again, does India? By standing up to Israel for its bad behavior, who knows maybe the attitude towards internally condoning human rights violations (specifically in Kashmir and North East) may experience a fundamental change.