This was the first time an Indian head of the State was visiting Palestine, and understandably the expectations were high. Unfortunately the visit saw a few unexpected turns, first when a part of President Pranab Mukherjee’s gift to the Al-Quds University’s India-Palestine Center for Excellence in Information Communication Technology was held back by Israel and, second, on Tuesday when the President had to cut short his visit after protests from students at the university. The protests not only forced the President to cut short his visit but also cancel the inauguration of a school for boys. An exchange of MoUs between academic institutions in both the countries took place in his absence.
Mr Mukherjee, in his speech at the university, said that his visit “reflects the keen interest of India in further deepening the rich and historic relationship...with Palestine”. However, placards at the protest, with messages like ‘You have to listen to our voices’ and ‘Dear India, boycott Zionism...’, summed up what Palestine wants to tell an India that is strengthening its ties with Israel. India-Israel ties have been growing at a steady pace over the past two decades, but while previous governments were circumspect about it, the Narendra Modi-led NDA is vocal and upfront. In the diplomatic arena of fine balancing and nuanced positioning this shift has sent out mixed signals.
India has cooperation with Israel in the fields of defence, agriculture, counter-terrorism and IT, and in many sectors it is of crucial importance. This bonhomie comes at a time when Israel is facing opposition from traditional allies: the US is on the verge of finalising a nuclear deal with Iran and Europe is increasingly vocal about its opposition to Israel’s actions in the occupied territories. Given this, India is in a better position to weigh in on Israel’s actions vis-a-vis Palestine.
The Centre should not dismiss this protest as a minor incident, because it is a manifestation of how its West Asia policy is perceived in Palestine. Its sudden, and at times miscalculated, flaunting of ties with Israel has had a detrimental effect on the India-Palestine equation — an example of this was seen in July when India abstained on the UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. New Delhi should not make the mistake of strengthening its ties with one nation at the cost of the other.