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[Burning Issue] India and Israel-Palestine conflict

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When it comes to mediating international crises, India’s track record is a mixed bag. In recent decades, India has been unwilling or unable to be effective in resolving some of the conflicts in its immediate neighborhood. The recent 11-day Israel-Hamas conflict has encouraged some journalists, foreign policy elites, academics, and retired diplomats to flag India’s candidacy as a possible mediator.

India Israel relations

Background

  • Both nations became independent almost at the same time, in the late 1940s, following a long struggle against British Colonialism.
  • They both follow the democratic form of governance in a neighborhood where democracy is either frail or non-existent.
  • India announced its recognition of Israel on September 17th, 1950, following which the Jewish Agency established an immigration office in Bombay. This later became a Trade Office and subsequently a Consulate.
  • The diplomatic relationship between India and Israel was previously based on popular consensus and only much later became official.
  • However, while Israel had tried to forge close ties with India, the latter was reluctant to respond in kind.
  • This was because during that time India was a young state that needed to take into account Arab states’ numerical impact at the United Nations.
  • Furthermore, it could not afford to antagonize its Muslim population by establishing ties with a Jewish state. Sympathizing the Palestinian cause is a by-product of these motives.
  • In 1961, India is one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement along with President Nasser of Egypt. This significantly complicated India’s ties with the Jewish state.
  • Another hurdle that prevented the bilateral ties was India’s close ties with the Soviet Union while Israel inclined towards the US.

India’s shift towards Israel

Though India voted against a UN resolution for the creation of Israel, once Israel is created, India officially recognized Israel (in 1950). But full diplomatic ties were established only in 1992.

The reasons for this tectonic shift in the foreign policy stand were:

  • During these years, the popular perception of Israel was negative as it was a state formed on religion and analogous to Pakistan. However, the formation of an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1969 which neglected the sentiments of Indian Muslims by blocking of India’s membership to this group by Pakistan is one of the primary triggers for the change instance. (Even today India is not a member of OIC).
  • India has received no backing from the Arab countries on Kashmir Issue. There have been no serious attempts by the Arab world to put pressure on Pakistan to reign in the cross-border insurgency in Kashmir.
  • Israel supported India during the Indo-Pak wars even before full diplomatic ties were established.
  • With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the US as a superpower, India started aligning itself with the US, and this further added to our improved relations with Israel.
  • After decades of Non-Alignment and Pro-Arab policy, in 1992 India changed its stance and established full diplomatic ties with Israel.

Collaborations between India and Israel

Military collaboration

  • India and Israel have increased collaboration in military ventures since the establishment of diplomatic relations. The rise of Islamic extremist terrorism has helped both the countries to join hands against the global threat of terrorism.
  • India is the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment and Israel is the second-largest defense supplier to India after Russia.
  • In February 2014, India and Israel signed three important agreements on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, Cooperation in Homeland Security, and Protection of Classified Material.
  • Four working groups in areas of border management, internal security and public safety, police modernisation and capacity building for combating crime, crime prevention and cybercrime were established.
  • IAI is developing the Barak 8 missile for the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force which is capable of protecting sea vessels and ground facilities from aircraft and cruise missiles.
  • In 2016, the Indian government approved the purchase of two more Phalcon AWACS. India and Israel are also planning to hold their joint military exercise soon.

Political collaboration

  • Since the up-gradation of relations in 1992, defense and agriculture have become the two main pillars of the bilateral engagement.
  • The political ties have become especially cordial under the Modi Government.
  • In 2017, Prime Minister Modi became the first-ever Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel.
  • During this visit, the diplomatic relationship was upgraded to a strategic level and seven agreements/MoUs were signed in the areas of R&D, innovation, water, agriculture and space.
  • In 2018, the Israeli Prime Minister visited India, during which Government to Government (G2G) agreement on cybersecurity, oil and gas cooperation, film cooperation and air transport were signed, along with five other semi-government agreements.
  • An increase in the high-level exchanges in recent times has expanded cooperation in areas like trade, agriculture, science and technology and security.

Agriculture collaboration

  • India has chosen Israel as a strategic partner (G2G) in the field of agriculture.
  • This partnership evolved into the Indo-Israel Agricultural Project (IIAP), under the Indo Israel Action Plan, based on a MOU signed by Indian and Israeli ministers of Agriculture in 2006.
  • The partnership aim to introduce crop diversity, increasing productivity & increasing water use efficiency. 
  •  IIAP is implemented via establishment of Centers of Excellence (CoE), in which Israeli Technologies and know-how are disseminated tailored to local Indian conditions. 
  • India has a lot to learn from dryland agriculture of Israel. The Economic Survey 2016-17 batted for Indo-Israel cooperation in drip-irrigation technologies.
  • Israel has mastered water conservation techniques and India can learn from it.  It helps India to face its water stressed condition.
  • Another area of potential cooperation is cleaning polluted rivers.

Space collaboration

  • India and Israel have signed a cooperative agreement promoting space collaboration between both nations. 
  • The two countries have also signed an agreement outlining the deployment of TAUVEX, an Israeli space telescope array, on India’s GSAT-4, a planned navigation and communication satellite.
  • In 2008, TecSAR was successfully inserted into orbit by India’s PSLV. One of TecSAR’s primary functions is to monitor Iran’s military activities.

Economic collaboration

  • The bilateral merchandise trade stood at $5.02 billion (excluding defense) in 2016-17.
  • While exports from India were $3.06 billion, the import to India from Israel was $1.96 billion.
  • The diamond trade constitutes more than 53% of the bilateral trade.
  • India is Israel’s third-largest trading partner in Asia after China and Hong Kong.
  • In recent years, bilateral trade has diversified to include several sectors like pharmaceuticals, agriculture, IT and telecom and homeland security.
  • Major exports from India to Israel include precious stones and metals, chemical products, textiles and textile articles etc.
  • Major imports from Israel include chemicals and mineral products, base metals and machinery and transport equipment. Potash is a major item of Israel’s exports to India.

Challenges in INDO-Israel relations

Sticky Points in the Relations:

  1. Bilateral Trade and investment still below potential: From just $200 million in 1992, bilateral trade (excluding defense) peaked at about $5 billion in 2012 but since then it has dropped to about $4 billion. Also, bilateral trade has not diversified much—diamonds and chemicals still make up for the large chunk of the pie.
  2. Private Sector still finding feet: Indian companies like Sun Pharma and ATG, a specialty tyre-maker, have big interests in Israel. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the Chinese are streets ahead of us in bilateral trade and their companies are investing heavily in Israel’s cutting-edge start-ups.
  3. Connectivity between two countries still poor with just one direct flight from Mumbai 3 times a week and no direct flights from Delhi.
  4. Historical retrenchment: India’s consistent support for a sovereign, independent, viable and united Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognized borders, side by side and at peace with Israel and Pro-Arab stance has been a sticky point.
  5. Limited People to People ties and cultural differences: Israelis and Indian approach business differently and often find it difficult to get on the same page. Though formal ties were established in 1992, the ideological divide resurfaces time and again.

India- Palestine Relations

Background

  • The relationship with Palestine was almost an article of faith in Indian foreign policy for over four decades. 
  • At the 53rd UN session, India co-sponsored the draft resolution on the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. 
  • In the 1967 and 1973 wars, India lashed out at Israel as the aggressor. 
  • In the 1970s, India rallied behind the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) and its leader Yasser Arafat (received as Head of State) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
  • In 1988, when the PLO declared an independent state of Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem, India granted recognition immediately. 
  • India opened a Representative Office in Gaza on 25 June 1996 which was later shifted to Ramallah in 2003.
  • India has thus consistently supported the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to a State and the consequent imperative need for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region.

Reasons for India siding with Palestine 

  • India’s own Partition along religious lines (Historical basis)
  • Solidarity with the Palestinian people who would be dispossessed (HR Perspective)
  • To ward off Pakistan’s plan to isolate India over Kashmir (Geopolitical reason) 
  • Later, India’s energy dependence on the Arab countries also became a factor (Economic & Pragmatism)
  • To appeal to the sentiments of India’s own Muslim citizens (Domestic Politics)

Changes after 1991- Pragmatism

  • The opening of an Indian embassy in Tel Aviv in January 1992 marked an end to four decades of giving Israel the cold shoulder.
  • India’s decision to normalize ties with Israel in 1992 came against the backdrop of the break-up of the Soviet Union, the need for economic pragmatism (i.e. access to Israeli technology), common threats of terrorism and massive shifts in the geopolitics of West Asia on account of the first Gulf War in 1990. 
  • The India-Israel relationship continued to grow, mostly through defense deals, and in sectors such as science and technology and agriculture.
  • There were few high-profile visits, and they all took place when the BJP-led NDA-1 under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in office.

Balancing act with Palestine

  • India voted in favour of a resolution in the General Assembly opposing the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
  • At the UNHRC’s 46th session in Geneva earlier this year, India voted against Israel in three resolutions – 
    • one on the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people 
    • A second on Israeli settlement policy, and
    • A third on the human rights situation in the Golan Heights.
  • In the current context of violence, India in its official statement appears to implicitly hold Israel responsible for triggering the current cycle of violence by locating its beginnings in East Jerusalem rather than from Gaza. 
  • The statement was also emphatic that “the historic status quo at the holy places of Jerusalem including the Haraml al Sharif/Temple Mount must be respected. (The site, administered by Jordan, is revered in both Islam and Judaism. Jewish worshippers are not allowed inside, but have often tried to enter forcibly)

Recent Israel-Palestine dispute and India’s stand on it

Recently Israeli armed forces have penetrated Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Haram esh-Sharif in Jerusalem. Hamas retaliated by firing rockets on Israel. In retaliation, Israeli airstrikes targeted the Gaza Strip. This invoked the Indian response to the Israel-Palestine dispute once again. The India’s stand can be observed by following points,

  • Not resolutely standing with Israel: Recently, the Israeli Prime Minister mentioned the 25 countries that support Israeli actions. The countries include United States, Albania, etc. But India was not among the list of 25 countries.
  • Concern towards Palestine: India expressed deep concern over the violence in Jerusalem. Especially on Haram esh-Sharif/Temple Mount that too in the holy month of Ramzan.
  • Advocating Status-quo: India urged both sides to “refrain from attempts to unilaterally change the existing status quo”. Further, India also demanded, “the historic status quo at the holy places of Jerusalem, including Haram esh-Sharif/Temple Mount must be respected“.
  • Respecting the sentiments of both Israel and Palestine: India in its official statement mentioned both the “Haram esh-Sharif and Temple Mount”. This is a symbol of mutual respect by India on the religious sentiments of Israel and Palestine.
  • According to the Palestinian narrative, they only maintain Haram esh-Sherif. I.e. exclusive Islamic control and ownership.
  • On the other hand, the Israelis mention only Temple Mount. I.e. exclusive control and ownership of Jews.
  • All these signifies India’s commitment towards its de-hyphenation policy on Israel and Palestine

India’s de-hyphenation policy on Israel and Palestine

As a part of the Link West Policy, India has de-hyphenated its relationship with Israel and Palestine. It means India’s relationship with Israel will depend upon its own merits. Also, it will be independent and separate from India’s relationship with the Palestinians. In simple terms, it means, India will have its bilateral strategic ties with Israel irrespective of its political stance on the Israel-Palestine issue. Instead, India will treat both countries as mutually independent and exclusive. The developments under this phase are:-

  • No Indian PM has visited Israel supporting the Palestinian cause. But the de-hyphenation policy enabled the first Indian PM visit to Israel in 2017. During the visit, both countries signed 7 MoUs. This includes sectors such as Agriculture, Water Conservation, India-Israel Industrial Research and Development and Technological Innovation Fund (I4F), etc.
  • To commemorate 25 years of Indian-Israeli relations, the Israeli Prime Minister visited India in 2018. During that, he honoured the Indian soldiers who perished in the Battle of Haifa during World War I.
  • So far India has maintained the image of a historical moral supporter for Palestinian self-determination.  At the same time, the policy of de-hyphenation allowed India to engage in the military, economic, and other strategic relations with Israel.
  • India voted for a resolution criticising the U.S. for recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. This reassured India’s principle on long-standing policy on Palestine.

Way Forward

  • Continuation of approach: Given the constraints faced by opponents to government policy, it is unlikely that India is going to change course regarding its approach towards Israel and the Palestinians. The political establishment is broadly supportive of the direction which began under Congress in the 1980s-90s and which has sharpened under Modi and the BJP since 2014.
  • Balancing Act: As the UN vote over Jerusalem demonstrated, Indian policymakers believe that they can accommodate both the demands of the international community to maintain previous commitments regarding Jerusalem (and the Palestinians) while also developing more extensive ties with Israel. They therefore pursue what they believe is a balanced approach without regard for the underlying dynamics and structural disparities between the conflict parties.
  • In sum, Indian policy appears to be guided primarily by strategic considerations. In a context in which India has developed a strategic partnership with the United States — Israel’s foremost ally — it seems highly unlikely that New Delhi will embrace the role of a peacemaker, no matter how many times it votes to uphold prior international commitments regarding the status of Jerusalem or the Palestinian question. 
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