By S. Samuel C. Rajiv
Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas on the side lines of the 70th UN General Assembly session in New York on September 28, 2015. Vikas Swarup, official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), tweeted that India was ‘bonding with Palestine’. Abbas last came to India in September 2012, for his fourth visit since 2005. The previous high-level meeting at the side lines of the UNGA between the two sides was in September 2013 when Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid met with his Palestinian counterpart.
Modi’s meeting with Abbas can be read as a further reaffirmation of the commitment of the government to maintain continuity in India’s Palestine policy. The Modi government’s Palestine policy had come under scrutiny because of increased high-level interactions with Israel, to be capped by the upcoming visits of President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Modi to Israel, as well as its response to ‘Operation Protective Edge’, the Israeli military action from July-August 2014.
Increase in Interactions with Israel
Israeli policy makers and analysts have often expressed displeasure at the lack of high-level political interactions with Indian leaders, despite the robust strategic engagement between the two countries. Mr. Modi’s meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 28, 2014, at the side lines of the 69th UNGA sessions, therefore garnered headlines. This was the first interaction between the Indian and Israeli Prime Ministers since the September 2003 visit of Ariel Sharon to India. Press statements noted that discussions between Modi and Netanyahu pertained to defence ties, cyber security, water management, agriculture and solid waste management. Modi also accepted Netanyahu’s invitation to visit Israel.
There have also been other contacts between senior Indian and Israeli political leaders since the Modi government assumed office. Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Israel in November 2014 to attend a Homeland Security conference. While Singh met with the top Israeli leadership including Netanyahu, the fact that he did not go to Ramallah (as had been the norm during previous visits by senior Indian cabinet ministers) was seen as a significant departure by some analysts. In addition, Modi met with the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Singapore in March 2015, when both were attending the state funeral of Lee Kwan Yew. During the course of a public lecture at the United Service Institution of India on April 1, 2015, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Carmon had stated that the meeting between the two leaders was ‘pre-planned’.
Indian Response to ‘Protective Edge’
The Modi government’s response to ‘Protective Edge’ came under criticism from the combined opposition, which demanded a resolution by Parliament ‘condemning’ the Israeli action. The government, however, rejected this demand after an unprecedented debate in the Rajya Sabha on July 21, 2014. (The previous instance of Parliament ‘condemning’ Israeli military activity was in the aftermath of the Lebanon invasion in 2006.) During the debate, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj pointed out that there had been no such demand – either from Congress MPs or from MPs of the Communist parties – during previous instances of large-scale Israeli military escalation in November 2012 (Operation ‘Pillar of Defence’) and December 2008-January 2009 (Operation ‘Cast Lead’). In response, senior Congress leader Anand Sharma contended that the opposition wanted a resolution this time around because it was not happy with the government’s response to the latest bout of escalation between Israel and Palestinian armed groups operating out of the Gaza Strip.
Swaraj then drew the attention of the Opposition to the BRICS Fortaleza Declaration of July 15, 2014 and the statement issued by the MEA on July 21. The BRICS Declaration, issued a week after Operation Protective Edge began, while reiterating the grouping’s staple positions on the Israel-Palestine issue, curiously did not even mention the then on-going escalation. But the MEA statement had expressed ‘deep concern’ at the escalation of violence while at the same time registering India’s “alarm at the cross-border provocations resulting from rocket attacks at targets inside Israel”. Thereupon, the Opposition criticised the government for equating Israel’s military response with Palestinian rocket attacks, insisting that ‘massacre’ was only taking place on one side (in the words of Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad).
Continuity in Indian Policy
The Modi government has been reiterating the importance of relations with Israel while at the same time insisting that there has been no change in India’s Palestine policy. In this regard, it is worth noting that Modi had issued a statement on the ‘International Day of Solidarity with the Palestine People’ (issued on November 21, 2014, though the Day is generally observed on November 29). In 2013, a similar statement had been issued on the same occasion by E. Ahmed, the then Deputy Foreign Minister in the UPA government. The previous instance of a Prime Ministerial statement on the occasion was by Dr. Manmohan Singh way back in 2007.
It is also important to note that Swaraj met with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in April 2015 in Jakarta, at the side lines of the Asian-African Conference commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference. And on May 31, 2015, she indicated (on the occasion of the Modi government completing one year in office) that she would visit Israel, Palestine and Jordan ‘soon’, while Modi would also visit, ‘though no dates have been fixed’. Recent reports suggest that the Israeli government is concerned at the delay in the finalisation of the dates for Modi’s visit and that a senior aide of Netanyahu visited New Delhi to expedite the process.
Modi’s meeting with Abbas in New York puts to rest doubts about any imminent changes in India’s policy of voting in favour of Palestinian-related resolutions at the UN. In 2014, India voted in favour of each of the 14 such resolutions moved in the UNGA. All these resolutions criticised Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories and supported the work of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees, among others. Israel on its part views these resolutions as ‘outrageous’ and funding the ‘defamation and de-legitimisation’ of Israel. Therefore, it would seem that India and Israel will continue to ‘agree to disagree’ as regards India’s voting pattern in the UN on Palestine-related issues for the foreseeable future. Further, the Modi government did not desist from sponsoring the resolution – ‘Right of the Palestinian People to Self-Determination’ – which India had been sponsoring since 1998, albeit with some breaks in between. India did not sponsor this resolution in 2001, 2005 and in 2010, though it did support the resolution during these years.
India, however, abstained at the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) on July 1, 2015 on a resolution welcoming the report of the Commission of Inquiry established a year ago to investigate violation of international humanitarian and human rights law in the ‘Occupied Territories’ during ‘Protective Edge’. The resolution, among other requirements, urged Israel and its antagonists to cooperate with the International Criminal Court in its ‘preliminary examination’ of the issue.
India’s stance then was welcomed by some Israeli analysts who termed it as a ‘major change’ in its policy position. It is pertinent to note here that the Modi government had voted in favour of the July 23, 2014 resolution which established the Commission of Inquiry. Others, however, rightly contended that the abstention related to a conflict involving Hamas (designated as a ‘terrorist organisation’ by the US, EU, Egypt, among others) and pointed out that India still voted against Israel when it came to resolutions at the UNGA.
In effect, India’s voting pattern at the UN on issues relating to Israel and Palestine did not register any perceptible change in 2014. This further substantiates the view that there has not been any change in India’s Palestine policy as a result of the change in government.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/ReaffirmingIndiasTieswithPalestine_sscrajiv_011015.html