Palestine is the cause the world forgot. Which is why it is curious that New Delhi has expanded its engagement on this issue in the past few months. In November, India held its first joint commission meeting with the Palestinian Authority and this week will send a representative to a Paris meeting on reviving the West Asia peace process.
None of this is path-breaking and still a far cry from the pre-1990 days when India was a vociferous supporter of the Palestinian cause.
But there are reasons India is considering tentative, if largely symbolic, steps in this direction.
One, the transformation of relations between India and the United Arab Emirates, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar a few steps behind, has meant the Narendra Modi government is beginning to shape what its officials call a “greater West Asia” policy.
While largely concentrated on the Persian Gulf, the policy accepts that India should take diplomatic soundings across the Arab world. Hence the recent peripatetic habits of the minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar, who has been to Syria, Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere to show the Indian flag — and listen.
Besides some standard diplomatic and economic interests, India probably sees an opportunity to reduce Pakistan’s standing in a part of the world from which it has long received blind support. For example, even Morocco, the farthest outpost of the Arab world from India, is cooperating with Indian intelligence about Lashkar-e-Toiba operatives’ use of that country as a transit point.
In all this, to show New Delhi remains empathetic to the Palestinian cause is still useful when dealing with the Arab world. Especially when India has nothing to contribute to the crisis in Syria or Iraq.
Two, Modi is personally a source of suspicion across much of the Arab and Muslim world thanks to the shadow of the 2002 Gujarat riots. While this matters little in the realm of government-to-government relations, it is a barrier with a regime that has said it plans to arrange a ministerial-level visit with every country in the world.
Part of New Delhi’s problem is that it is increasingly hard to find Arab interlocutors it is comfortable with. There are few functional examples of the secular, if largely undemocratic, Arab political parties or movements that India has traditionally preferred. The Palestinian Authority, however beleaguered, is one of the few remaining remnants of the secular Arab nationalist movements of the past and, among these, one of the few that is democratic. At a time when India must deal largely with theocratic monarchies or cleric-driven polities like Iran, the Palestininan Authority comes almost as a relief to an older generation of Indian policy-makers.
Three, India is likely to further expand its relationship with Israel. Already the larger importer of Israeli arms in the world, India now has a security relationship that extends to the most sensitive defence areas like nuclear weapons technology and doctrine. Modi’s additional interest in the relationship is water. Israel is the acknowledged world leader in this area and the prime minister wants this to be a new pillar in the relationship.
Though half the Arab world, consumed by even stronger hatreds, is wooing Israel these days, New Delhi knows that as it becomes closer to Tel Aviv there is an inevitable blowback in the Arab world, with Tehran and with the Indian Muslim intellectual class. Showing renewed interest in Palestine is a useful means to help counter this. New Delhi, in any case, has used support for Palestinian nationalism as a foil to counter criticism of its shift to Tel Aviv for decades. Interestingly, in the joint commission meeting the Palestinians said they were pleased to talk to India because of its presumed influence on the Israelis.
Ultimately, New Delhi has no interest in getting directly involved in the West Asian peace process. It has neither the means and interest nor the diplomatic heft to do so. And arguably there could be no worse time to do so than now — when polls show that support for a two-nation solution is at its lowest point among both Israelis and Palestinians. That the cause is being suddenly picked up by the lamest of lame duck governments — the outgoing Barack Obama and Francois Hollande governments — is a sign what the international community actually thinks about its prospects.
India has other problems. One of them is its refusal to deal with Hamas, the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, because of its dislike for non-secular Islamic groups. While an idealistic position to take, it will fundamentally limit India’s influence in the Arab world as conservative — as opposed to radical — Islamic polities come to dominate the region. But to talk Palestine without Hamas is like speaking a language without vowels.
None of this will matter for now. New Delhi’s interest in Palestine is about issues other than Palestine itself. As is true for much of the world. India’s proposal to build an infotech park in Gaza may be the most important and tangible contribution it can make to the Palestinians.