Racking up yet another distinction, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Palestine on his three-nation to West Asia on Feb 10th. Much before the significance of the historic visit be appreciated, twitter wars erupted with Congress supporters contesting claims of Ministry of External Affairs. Soon, photographs of Prime Minister Nehru meeting UNEF (United Nations Emergency Forces) troops commanded by Lt Gen. RS Gyani at Gaza strip in 1960 surfaced on the social media network. But however, Nehru’s visit wasn’t official and moreover, Gaza was then under the control of Egyptian Military. Hence, Nehru can’t be credited with the honor of visiting Palestine. Support to Palestine cause has been basic cornerstone of Indian Foreign policy. In 1974, India became the first non-Arab country to recognize Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representative of Palestine People and officially recognized its statehood in 1988.
Modi’s visit to the West Bank comes weeks after India has hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Earlier in 2017, Modi made an official visit to Israel the first ever by any Indian Prime Minister. India for long delicately balanced its relations with Israel and Palestine that had deep semblance with domestic politics. Since independence, Palestine issue has been a matter of idealistic commitment and appeasement of Muslims in India. Obligated by burgeoning India’s energy needs, sizeable remittances and being home to 3 million Indians, India has been “more Arab than Arabs” and vociferously championed Palestine cause at the UN. India voted in favor of Palestine for becoming full member of UNESCO, backed the resolution against the construction of wall by Israel at UNGA, supported the installation of Palestine flags at UN premises. Despite, India’s unequivocal support for Palestine’s official nationhood, Palestine/ Arab League/ OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) never backed New Delhi at UN over Kashmir issue. On the contrary, Indo-Israeli collaboration in agriculture, water management and defense have been yielding immense benefits. Intriguingly, India never overtly supported Israel on International platforms nor openly wooed Israel.
Moreover, India’s support to Palestine has now become an oversold argument, Indian Muslims have moved away from the issue and are more worried about their economic upliftment. Further the tectonic shift in geopolitics and bid for hegemonic assertion between the Sunni and Shia powers has taken the West’s interest from the Palestine issue. Even Palestine issue no longer beleaguers the Arab World. In fact, the prospect of oil embargoes on India by Arab world is now a distant rarity. Global oil markets which have slumped due to poor demand have barely recovered. An economically resurgent India with rising demand for oil can be a lucrative market for Arab countries. While India is exploring new avenues to meet its rising energy requirements and swiftly accelerated the pace of exploring renewable sources, Indian market can be best destination bet for Oil rich nations (in terms of investments and oil demand). In a bid to reduce its dependence on West Asia, India is diversifying its oil and gas imports. New Delhi has started importing natural gas from US which is now exporting gas to Jordan, Kuwait and UAE. In short, India’s fears of remittances, oil sanctions and approval from Indian Muslims should no longer encumber its policy towards Palestine. Also, West Asian countries struggling to quell domestic insurgencies and changing power dynamics are no longer bothered about Palestine. Countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not averse to forging ties with Israel. Now the fissures within the PLO have become ominous and the organization lost its resolve. With international community becoming wary of growing threat of terrorism, countries are no longer willing to buy the doctrine of good and bad terrorism. The armed militant wing of PLO, Hamas leader is blacklisted as terrorist by the US and India’s stance on terrorism is in sharp contrast to the objectives of PLO.
In December 2017, President Trump’s decision of recognizing Jerusalem as capital of Israel in December created a furor in Arab nations who jointly adopted a resolution in UNGA against the move. Despite strengthening partnership and elevating friendship with Israel, India voted in favor of Palestine reasserting its commitment towards Palestine. Burdened by historical baggage, India is still fervently wedded to objective of Palestine nationhood. With time, India is making readjustments by de-hyphenating its ties with Israel and Palestine. Modi’s visit to Israel in July 2017 skipping Ramallah has been the first step in that direction.
For all its Hindutva credentials, India’s foreign policy under Modi regime towards Israel and Palestine has been a matter of intense scrutiny. Steering clear of symbolism, Modi eloquently de-hyphenated India’s ties with both countries. Months before his Israel visit, Modi courted all the West Asian countries and hosted President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine and reaffirmed India’s support to Palestine. In a bid to correct the predicaments of Indian diplomacy, Modi traveled to Ramallah in a Jordanian helicopter from Amman, escorted by Israeli choppers. Soon after his arrival, Modi laid wreath at mausoleum of Yasser Arafat and later visited his museum. Certainly, this gesture might have irked Israelis as they believe Arafat was responsible for the killing of several innocent people.
President Abbas accorded red-carpet welcome to Modi and sought Indian assistance and sustained friendship. Both leaders held bilateral talks and signed six agreements worth $50 million which included setting up super specialty hospital at Bethlehem, National Printing press, building an empowerment center for women and construction of schools. After the talks, Abbas conferred “Grand Collar of State of Palestine”, highest honor in recognition of Modi’s leadership and efforts to promote the historic relations between the state of Palestine and Republic of India. Modi carefully avoided references to Jerusalem and strongly asserted that a permanent solution can be possible through dialogue. He said, “dialogue and farsightedness can break the cycle of violence and free it (Palestine) from the baggage of the past. We know it is not easy but we need to keep trying as a lot is at stake”. Conferring the honor, President Abbas said, “We rely on India’s role as an international voice of great standing and weigh through its historical role in Non-Aligned Movement and in all international forum and its increasingly growing power on the strategic and economic levels, in a way that is conducive and just and desired peace in our region”.
After renewed emphasis on “Act East Policy”, Modi with his tri-nation visit to West Asia energized “Link West or Look West” policy. So far, while his efforts in this direction are underappreciated countries held toast to his diplomatic efforts and leadership by conferring medals and legions. Clearly, unlike in the Cold war era, countries are openly seeking friendships with nations of different hues. India too under Modi, courted Sunni and Shia majority nations and struck a delicate balance. Pariahs states no longer exist. While maintaining a degree of acquaintance with all nations is useful in international arena, every country should always be mindful of its interests and should work towards realizing the same. Modi’s visit to Palestine though reckoned as “forward-looking” has negligible tangible outcomes.
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