How Palestine is distinct, de-linked from India’s Israel policy

The marginalisation of the Palestinian question in India’s policy has been gradual. If the past is an indication, the EAM will visit Palestine in the future but without going to Israel
Even a reference to the peace process or the right of a Palestinian State coexisting peacefully and side by side with Israel was missing during Jaishankar’s trip (PTI) PREMIUM
Even a reference to the peace process or the right of a Palestinian State coexisting peacefully and side by side with Israel was missing during Jaishankar’s trip (PTI)
Updated on Oct 24, 2021 05:52 PM IST
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ByPR Kumaraswamy

There was a notable absence in external affairs minister (EAM) S Jaishankar’s five-day schedule in Israel: Palestine. Becoming the fourth EAM to visit Israel since the normalisation of relations in 1992, he met a range of interlocutors in the government and outside. The emerging West Asian Quad also steered clear of the Palestinian question. Even a reference to the peace process or the right of a Palestinian State coexisting peacefully and side by side with Israel was missing during Jaishankar’s trip. But should this be surprising?

Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi redefined India’s Palestine policy in May 2017, weeks before he became the first Indian PM visit to Israel. With Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas standing by his side in New Delhi, Modi reiterated India’s support for “a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, coexisting peacefully with Israel”. The most interesting part of this statement was the absence of any reference to East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian State. This was followed by Modi visiting Israel without going to Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestine National Authority. He completed the de-hyphenation by visiting Ramallah the following February, without going to Israel.

Jaishankar’s predecessors — Jaswant Singh (2000), SM Krishna (2012) and Sushma Swaraj (2016) — visited Palestine during their visits to Israel. Even president Pranab Mukherjee followed this pattern in 2015, adding Jordan to the visit. Jaishankar, however, followed Modi in undertaking a standalone visit to Israel. If the past is an indication, the EAM will visit Palestine in the future but without going to Israel. Geography would compel him to coordinate that trip with Jordan; while India can de-link Israel from Palestine, the latter cannot be de-linked from Jordan.

Skipping Ramallah will not go down well with a section of the Indian elite who will see in this an abandonment of the Palestinians, erosion of morality in Indian foreign policy or greater ideological convergence with Israel. But with Likud in Opposition, it is difficult to depict Jaishankar’s snub as yet another sign of a Likud-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance. Despite the Modi-Bibi bonhomie, EAM did not meet Benjamin Netanyahu. Moreover, since Jaishankar came to Israel from Abu Dhabi, arguments of Islamophobia or anti-Arab conspiracy would be difficult to sustain.

The absence of any reference to Palestine reflects two trends. One, under Modi, India has de-hyphenated Palestine from its Israel relationship. Just like India does not like to be hyphenated with Pakistan, Israel also does not like foreign leaders visiting Palestine during their visits to Israel. Israeli governments are satisfied with Washington being the only active player in the peace process and do not visualise a role for any other power. And, under Modi, India is respecting Israeli sensitivities.

Two, the marginalisation of the Palestinian question in India’s policy has been gradual. Besides the end of the Cold War and the Madrid conference, the Indo-Israeli normalisation was possible also due to the Palestinian factor losing its erstwhile relevance in inter-Arab relations, especially after the Kuwait crisis. Because of a host of regional factors, the Arab leaders were prepared to deal with Israel even without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the wake of the Arab Spring protests, even the Arab street is less concerned about the Palestinian statelessness than about the survival of Arab states and their territorial integrity. Hence, if one examines the Indian statements during the visits and meetings with regional leaders, the Palestinian question figures only vis-à-vis Egypt and Saudi Arabia and not others. The Abraham Accord, shepherd by President Donald Trump, facilitated Israel normalising relations with key Arab states even without resolving the vexed Palestinian question and provided an Arab-Islamic legitimacy to relations with Israel. And New Delhi is merely responding to this new regional reality.

Foreign policy is not an emotional exercise. Rather than criticising Jaishankar skipping Ramallah, one should ask — how did this become possible?

PR Kumaraswamy teaches contemporary Middle East at JNU

The views expressed are personal

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021