India has moved one step ahead of some of Israel's best friends by declaring "neutrality" between Israel and Palestine and refraining from criticising Israel for its massive attack on the Gaza strip. Even the United States has deplored Israeli actions against Palestinians, even though it considers Hamas a terrorist organisation. The US has also been demanding withdrawal of Israel to the 1967 borders and cessation of settlements in Palestinian territory. As a humanitarian gesture, President Obama has announced a financial package of $ 47m to Gaza in the middle of the war.
The statement of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj that "there is absolutely no change in India's policy towards Palestine" will not convince anyone after the Government went to the extent of accepting even a paralysis of the Parliament to avoid a debate on this issue. India had gradually moderated its criticism over the years, but never refrained from expressing grave concern over Israeli actions in Palestinian territories. For India to remain silent on this occasion when the casualties are mounting is extraordinary indeed.
If the Modi Government is signaling that India is now moving from moral politik to realpolitik, there is nothing illegitimate about it. If it has received advice either from Israel or the United States that it is India's Palestine policy, which is hindering the full fruition of cooperation with them and our priority is to secure their involvement in India's growth, the Government should admit a shift and abide by it. It has to be followed up by a change in our voting pattern in the United Nations by either abstaining on or voting against the numerous resolutions on Palestine that we have traditionally supported, though without co-sponsoring them in recent years. Such a step will dramatically reduce the percentage of resolutions on which we vote differently from the United States and eliminate a major grievance that the US Congress has against India. If that is not the intention of the Government, the drama in the Rajya Sabha was an empty gesture.
As the Minister pointed out, India's foreign policy has never been based on religion. It is also true that we have not received much in return for the principled position we have taken on Palestine. Having opposed the partition of Palestine in the United Nations, we were simply insisting that the two nations, created by the United Nations be established, recognised and enabled to live within their legitimate boundaries. We have condemned Israeli expansionism and disproportionate use of force as part of that broad policy. India was never considered "neutral" on this issue and we have led the non-aligned movement in its demand for a Palestinian state.
Our position on Palestine had never stood in the way of our maintaining good relations with Israel. Long before establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, we have maintained high-level contacts with it, and Israel had never demanded that blossoming of its relations with India be held hostage to our Palestine policy. Cooperation with Israel had existed in areas ranging from agriculture and irrigation to anti-terrorism.
Morarji Desai had revealed that Moshe Dayan had visited India during his time. Even at the height of the cold war, when we spoke harshly about Israel in the Security Council, Israel did not retaliate against us.
When the non-aligned movement threatened to expel Egypt on account of the Camp David Accords in 1979, India's firm position in Havana that the peace process must be encouraged earned the eternal gratitude of Israel and its allies. The Arab Group was displeased with the Indian position in Havana. What Israel cares for is such timely support and it can take in its stride critical remarks or resolutions on what they know are unacceptable to India. Israel accepts condemnation of violence even by the US as long as the latter vetoes action-oriented Security Council resolutions. A declaratory statement without any hostile action such as suspension of arms imports would not have made any difference to India-Israel relations.
Discussion on foreign policy is rare in Parliament as there is supposedly a consensus on most issues and a debate is considered superfluous except in critical situations. When the Government was informed of the desire for a debate, it could have readily agreed to it and a debate would have revealed the differing perceptions in India. Radical suggestions like cessation of arms imports from Israel would not have passed muster. The Government could also have introduced the new nuances it favoured without being accused of changing its position. Having signed up the BRICS declaration on Palestine, Prime Minister Modi could have allowed a similar statement to be issued by the Parliament.
In other words, if the intention of the Government was only to maintain good relations with Israel and fully support the Palestinian cause, the drama in the Rajya Sabha could have been avoided. But it appeared that there would be a shift towards the western alliance, essentially to remove the "remnants of the non-aligned mindset" for which we were criticised during our tenure in the UN Security Council. The position of the Government has also caused speculation that Israel was involved in facilitating the release of Indian nurses and others from Iraq. A deeper motivation could be a gradual dilution of our established positions to remove the western objections to India becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Israel has been a catalyst in the improvement of India-US relations in the past through the Jewish lobby in Washington. With Prime Minister Modi's visit to Washington on the cards, energising the Jewish lobby would be of advantage. Only the coming months will reveal the nature of the realpolitik that the Government will pursue in return for tangible benefits for the twin objectives of economic development and enhanced security.
Continuity in foreign policy is the message that the new Government of India has been conveying so far. No surprise is the surprise in its diplomacy. But given the fact that decisiveness and determined pursuit of well-defined objectives is also an attribute of the Modi Government, there could be something more than meets the eye in the neutrality between Israel and Palestine it has just declared.
TP Sreenivasan is a former ambassador and an eminent educationist