Last week, Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to make an official visit to Palestine; a three hour stop at Ramallah. In prepared remarks with the Palestine president Mahmoud Abbas, he called for a “sovereign and independent Palestine”. On the occasion of his visit, he was awarded the Grand Collar of the State of Palestine, the highest honor given to foreign dignitaries by Palestine.
Looking at the broader picture of the Middle East and Modi first, it’s noteworthy that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first world leader to congratulate Modi even as the Lok Sabha results were being announced and it became clear Modi would be victorious. Since becoming Prime Minister, his visits to the region began with the UAE, and then followed by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar.
His visit last year to Israel was deemed a success where both leaders seemed pleased with the outcome of the visit. Talmiz Ahmad, former Indian ambassador to the Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, in a 2015 column for The Wire stated that when it was announced Modi would be the first prime minister to visit Israel, it wasn’t surprising –
“Not only does the Bharatiya Janata Party leader have a strong personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he also exemplifies the deep and abiding camaraderie that has existed between the hard right of the Zionist movement and our own right-wing Hindutva elements.”
With regards to Palestine, President Abbas visited India last May. In his presence, Modi stated in part, “…we hope to see the realization of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel”.
With regards to Palestine, traditionally India’s approach is measured and has to balance its relation with Israel with its pro-Palestine affirmations; a sovereign Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Manipur Governor Najma Heptulla stated that as she herself was involved with the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict, that Modi would be one to bring peace between the two.
In November of last year, on the occasion of International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, Modi called for the realization of a sovereign independent, united and viable Palestine.
In December, India voted in favor of the resolution passed overwhelmingly in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) which called upon the United States to withdraw its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The statement following the vote did not directly refer to the two-state solution or East Jerusalem.
Hon'ble Prime Minister's message on the occasion of International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people @PMOIndia @SushmaSwaraj @mjakbar @MEAIndia @IndianDiplomacy @IndiainNewYork @IndiaUNGeneva @IndiainJordan @indembcairo @DDNewsLive @sidhant pic.twitter.com/zAESG7GaDO— India in Palestine (@ROIRamallah) 29 November 2017
Following this, the Palestinian envoy was disappointed in India’s statement saying in part, “Normally, Indians in all their statements recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state because it is part of the 1967 occupied land”. India is also a signatory to the Declaration on Palestine at Asian African Commemorative Conference in Bandung in April 2015, which spoke about East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestine.
In his remarks at Ramallah last week, while Modi called for a sovereign and independent Palestine, it was striking to some that the words united and viable were not used to describe the issue. The visit came after the United States declared that it would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; a longtime break with past US policy. With regards to India, the Indian Express editorial, prior to his trip said the visit did not mean a decline in support for a two state solution –
“The Indian side has sought to emphasize that the dehyphenation, and the consequent scaling up of ties with Israel, do not mean a lessening of New Delhi’s support for the Palestinian cause”.
Supporting a united and viable Palestinian state means opposing Israel’s actions of carving out Palestinian land in the occupied West bank. Following the vote at the UNGA in December, the editorial points out that no visit to Palestine can be described a non political.
If the current Modi government’s position holds, it will be in keeping with position of Israel’s ruling Likud party which has stated that Palestine should not have access to ports and airports as a matter of security. The Hindu editorial stated that the visit to Palestine signals the strategy to grow ties with the two nations separately –
“India’s policy objective is clear and rooted in political realism. It wants to maintain the balance in its relationship with both Palestine and Israel, and strengthen bilateral ties with each separately”.
“India, which has vital interests in the Gulf and enjoys good ties with the region’s Muslim countries, cannot afford to be seen to be politically closer to Israel at the expense of ties with Palestinians. So it is not a coincidence that the Prime Minister’s visit to Palestine took place against the backdrop of India’s deepening ties with Israel”.
Following the Declaration on Palestine in April 2015, a year later, India signed another document with Russia and China which referred to East Jerusalem as the future capital of Palestine. However, as noted, Modi did not articulate this point in May last year in his statement on the occasion of Abbas’ visit.
P.R. Kumaraswamy, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, in a 2017 paper for the think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses points out that Modi has redefined India’s policy and position on Palestine –
“It took more than a year after Modi’s election for the government to begin to spell out its policy shift on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and redefine its parameters. While it is keen to further bilateral relations with Palestine, India is no longer willing to view its Israel policy through the traditional Palestinian prism”
The balancing act that India needs to perform is made complicated by the United States’ stark shift in policy. Thus, the route that the government is taking seems to actually two. Deal with them individually. It remains to be seen if pressure from the United States comes; and if it does Netanyahu and Abbas will look to Modi to see how he plays it.
More columns by Varun Sukumar