Foreign Policy Watch: India-Middle East

Explained: India, Israel and Palestine Ties


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not Much

Mains level: India's position on Israel-Palestine conflict

Recently India’s permanent representative to the UN made a carefully crafted statement at the UN Security Council “open debate” on the escalating Israel-Palestine violence.

Must read:

[Burning Issue] West Asia Peace Plan

The story so far

  • The violence started on 6 May, when Palestinian protests began in Jerusalem over an anticipated decision of the Supreme Court of Israel on the eviction of six Palestinian families a neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem.
  • Israel’s operation “Guardian of the Walls” began with attacks on Hamas (a fundamentalist Palestinian group) tunnels close to the border fence with Israel.
  • India has adopted a balanced approach to the current Israeli-Palestine conflict that has pushed the volatile region into yet another cycle of violence.

India’s long-standing position

  • India has since long been maintaining that the Israel-Palestine conflict should be resolved through negotiation resulting in sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
  • India has urged both countries to “engage with each other, including on the recent proposals put forward by the United States, and find an acceptable two-state solution for peaceful coexistence”.

The dilemma

  • India seems to strive to maintain a balance between India’s historic ties with Palestine and its blossoming relations with Israel.
  • The request that both sides refrain from “attempts to unilaterally change the existing status quo including in East Jerusalem and its neighbourhoods” seems to be a message to Israel about its settler policy.
  • 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”.

Ties with spikes

  • India’s policy on the longest-running conflict in the world has gone from being unequivocally pro-Palestine for the first four decades, to a tense balancing act with its three-decade-old friendly ties with Israel.
  • In recent years, India’s position has also been perceived as pro-Israel.

From Nehru to Rao

  • The balancing began with India’s decision to normalize ties with Israel in 1992, which came against the backdrop of the break-up of the Soviet Union.
  • There were massive shifts in the geopolitics of West Asia on account of the first Gulf War in 1990.
  • That year, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) lost much of its clout in the Arab world by siding with Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the occupation of Kuwait.
  • The opening of an Indian embassy in Tel Aviv in January 1992 marked an end to four decades of giving Israel the cold shoulder, as India’s recognition of Israel in 1950 had been minus full diplomatic ties.
  • PM Nehru’s reasoning for the decision to recognise Israel was that it was “an established fact”, and that not doing so would create bitterness between two UN members.

Why did India then support Palestine?

  • In 1948, India was the only non-Arab-state among 13 countries that voted against the UN partition plan of Palestine in the General Assembly that led to the creation of Israel.
  • Scholars ascribe various reasons for this India’s own Partition along religious lines; as a new nation that had just thrown off its colonial yoke; solidarity with the Palestinian people who would be dispossessed; and to ward off Pakistan’s plan to isolate India over Kashmir.
  • Later, India’s energy dependence on the Arab countries also became a factor, as did the sentiments of India’s own Muslim citizens.

India and Palestine

  • 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 and its leader as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
  • In 1975, India became the first non-Arab country to recognise the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and invited it to open an office in Delhi.
  • In 1988, when the PLO declared an independent state of Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem, India granted recognition immediately.

Continuity for the cause

  • India voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution in October 2003 against Israel’s construction of a separation wall.
  • It voted for Palestine to become a full member of UNESCO in 2011, and a year later, co-sponsored the UNGA resolution that enabled Palestine to become a “non-member” observer state at the UN without voting rights.
  • India also supported the installation of the Palestinian flag on the UN premises in September 2015.

Changes after 2014

  • For two-and-a-half decades from 1992, the India-Israel relationship continued to grow, mostly through defence deals, and in sectors such as science and technology and agriculture.
  • But India never acknowledged the relationship fully.
  • There were few high-profile visits, and they all took place when the PM Vajpayee was in office.
  • Israel was perceived as an ideal of a “strong state” that deals “firmly” with “terrorists”.
  • It was during NDA-2 that the government under PM Modi decided to take full ownership of the relationship with Israel.

Balancing act

  • Meanwhile, India continues to improve ties with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE and feels vindicated by the decision of some Arab states to improve ties with Israel.
  • For instance, even as it abstained at UNESCO in December 2017, India voted in favour of a resolution in the UNGA opposing Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

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