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Why do Israel and Palestine matter equally to Indian diplomacy?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) seen in January 2018 [Narendra Modi/Facebook]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) seen in January 2018 [Narendra Modi/Facebook]

By tradition, India adheres to a bilateral approach in dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict, without interfering in the internal affairs of either. It advocates the peaceful coexistence of two states for both communities. In spite of recognising Israel in 1950 and having full diplomatic ties, India has maintained crucial cultural and commercial relationships with Palestine and the Arab states. The government in New Delhi has to some extent managed to maintain some equilibrium by not favouring either side regarding controversial issues such as atrocities and borders.

The shifting global scenario following the fall of India's key ally the USSR and the emergence of the US and China as the main world powers imply that India must consort with America to confront the challenges it faces, specifically related to its need for arms and the hostile behaviour of its neighbours such as Pakistan and China. The situation in Kashmir and cross-border terrorism are major concerns for India, in which the US and Israel openly support its position while the Arab states and members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have stood with Pakistan and criticised India about atrocities in Kashmir. As such, close relations with Israel and the US could be a desirable solution for India to sustain itself politically in a changing world.

Considering its political advantages to lie with Israel, India's relationship blossomed during the Congress-led government in 1992 but have flourished even more under the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) regime. The right wing Hindu-nationalist BJP is known widely for its softening position towards Israel, a move opposed by the Leftist alliance and the Indian Muslim community due to Israel's colonial policies against Palestine. The recent visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that of his predecessor the late Ariel Sharon in 2003, were hosted by a BJP government. Netanyahu's visit was in return for his Indian counterpart's trip to Israel last July in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of full diplomatic relations.

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Nine memorandums of understanding and agreements in the field of cybersecurity, transportation, energy, film production and investment have been signed. Bilateral visits by the leaders of both countries would certainly bolster trade and investment; most importantly, though, is that defence links have been strengthened by secretive deals. Data shows that India's arms trade with Israel increased by 117 per cent, from $276 million in 2015 to $599 million in 2016. India imports 48 per cent of Israel's total arms exports. Although Russia is still the largest exporter of arms to India, contributing 62 per cent of total imports, Israel has emerged as the second largest at 24 per cent.

A major shift towards Israel by India's previously balanced policy has been witnessed since the current BJP government came into power in 2014. During his visit to Israel last year, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not meet any Palestinian officials. Moreover, India abstained in a vote against Israel at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in July 2015. This approach could isolate India among the OIC member states and provide an opportunity for Pakistan to equate the issues of Kashmir and Palestine.

The OIC countries have potential commercial relations with India of around 30 per cent of its total trade. According to the Ministry of Commerce statistics for the financial year 2016-17, India's volume of trade with Arab countries stands at $200 billion, which includes $81 billion in exports and imports of $119 billion. These countries are also a source of remittance inflows to India and fulfil its petroleum needs; 82 per cent of its crude oil is imported by India from OIC members.

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Considering the commercial advantages with Arab and OIC countries, India can't afford to have a strained relationship by ignoring the Palestine cause. Its vote against the US and Israel in the UN General Assembly resolution denouncing America's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the planned move of its embassy from Tel Aviv was no surprise to political commentators.

In spite of them taking a different stand on Kashmir, the OIC countries individually retain close relationships with India and share its concern about terrorism. The Palestinian Authority's swift action in recalling its envoy from Pakistan after sharing the stage with a conspirator of the Mumbai terrorist attack reflects Ramallah's friendship with New Delhi. Modi is also scheduled to visit the UAE, Oman and Palestine over the next month to show solidarity with the Arab states.

For political and defence reasons, India could boost its ties with Israel, but these must not replace links with Palestine and the OIC countries, otherwise the potential for business could decline. Developing India's global status and its acceptability to Israel and Palestine simultaneously suggest that it could also act as a catalyst to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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