Last week, Palestine recalled its envoy to Pakistan Walid Abu Ali after he was seen sharing the stage with Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed. The meeting between Ali and Saeed had raised hackles in India, which lodged a formal complaint with the Palestinian envoy in Delhi. The incident, which occurs just a couple of months ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Ramallah, is telling of the relationship between India and Palestine.

As explanation for the diplomatic breach, Palestine suggested that it had been a mistake; the envoy had not known who Saeed was. But he was being recalled because of “historical ties with India, which are close and friendly”. Articles in the Indian press have argued that the meeting was not as innocent as portrayed. The Palestinian envoy is believed to have engaged widely in Pakistan and the alleged mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks, who features in the United Nations’ list of internationally designated terrorists, is an easily recognisable figure.

If such a gloss is to be accepted, the recent episode looks like shadow boxing: a deliberate gesture of provocation and then overstated contrition. It reflects the tensions in a bilateral relationship that was once warm but seems to have chilled after India’s growing proximity to Israel. Many commentators have seen this as a natural progression of Hindutva and anti-Muslim politics, which have marked the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance’s tenure so far. But Indian foreign policy is too complex to allow a straightforward embrace of Israel.

Palestinian envoy to Pakistan Walid Abu Ali (left) with Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed in Pakistan. (Credit: Twitter)

‘Historical ties’

Pre-Independence, there were strong solidarities between the Indian and Palestinian causes, both ranged against imperialism. These ideological affinities were reinforced by the Khilafat Movement – a campaign by Indian Muslims to press the British government to preserve the authority of the Ottoman sultan as caliph of Islam – which made common cause with the Congress’s Non-Cooperation Movement. In 1938, Gandhi spoke against the persecution of Jews in Germany but also against their settlement in Palestine. “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French,” he wrote.

India recognised Israel in 1950 but did not establish full diplomatic relations until 1992. In between were the decades of non-alignment and Nehruvian idealism, when Indian foreign policy was ostensibly guided by values and goals such as “liberal internationalism” and “eradicating colonialism”. It maintained a principled position of support for the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution, championing a “sovereign, independent, united” Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem.

Covertly, it is now said, India and Israel cooperated in the realms of security and defence. But it was not until the post-Cold War era that ties with Israel went public. This was the time a post-liberalisation India was gravitating towards the United States and idealism was dropped for the doctrine of pragmatism, which endorsed the pursuit of national interest rather than universal ideals and strategic alliances rather than ideological coalitions.

Still, successive governments were reluctant to own the relationship, until now, when Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel.

Pragmatism versus Hindutva

It is usually conceded that BJP-led governments have been more openly sympathetic to Israel than those headed by the Congress, even though it was under Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao that diplomatic ties were initiated. During the Vajpayee years, Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit India, and there have been several high-profile visits in this government’s tenure. Before Modi goes to Ramallah in February, his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to visit India.

The government has also made no secret of defence deals and collaborations. Indeed, Israel’s muscular brand of militarism seems have become aspirational for India. When the Indian Army reportedly launched “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control in 2016, in response to a terrorist attack on an army camp in Kashmir’s Uri town that was blamed on Pakistan, Modi compared it to the exploits of the Israeli Army. Under this government, India also calibrated its historical position on Palestine. It still supported independent Palestine but was silent on whether East Jerusalem would be its capital.

But the pragmatism that is said to have become an article of faith with the foreign policy establishment also prompted India to secure its interests elsewhere. Indian trade with the Arab world amounted to $121 billion in 2016-2017. That accounts for 18.3% of India’s total trade. It also outstrips trade with Israel, which stood at a mere $5 billion. Recently, India also cancelled a $500-milion deal with Israel to buy anti-tank guided missiles, as it was reported to be developing them domestically.

If Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited India during this government’s tenure, so did Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Most significantly, at the United Nations in December, India voted against the United States’ decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, defying two close allies in one go. The move was read as a sign of India’s emergence as a powerful actor in international politics, of its ability to de-hyphenate ties with Israel from ties with Palestine, of the continued autonomy of Delhi’s foreign policy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu at Olga Beach in Israel. Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in July 2017. (Credit: PTI)

Other parties

But the waning of full-throated support for Palestine has meant the two powers are now engaged in a diplomatic thrust and parry. No matter how Palestine views the recent shifts in India, it still needs all the support it can get in international forums.

Indian foreign policy may not be as free from conflicting pressures either. It will have to negotiate two other powers as it determines its policy on Palestine: the United States, a powerful ally, and Pakistan, its chosen bete noire. How far can India afford to antagonise the United States? While it voted against Washington’s decision on Jerusalem, will it now endorse the Palestinian president’s order to sever diplomatic ties with America? Will it also condemn President Donald Trump’s threat to cut American funding to Palestine?

Meanwhile, as Delhi grew aloof from Ramallah, Pakistan stepped into the breach, twinning Palestine with Kashmir and, in the process, India with Israel. Last month, Pakistan raised both disputes at the United Nations, asking that they be resolved. This is not the first time it has compared human rights violations by Israel to those by the Indian government in Kashmir. It is also no coincidence that Hafiz Saeed used the platform he shared with the Palestinian envoy to call for jihad in Kashmir.

If India wants to avoid ceding the moral high ground to Pakistan, there is a case for speaking out against Israel’s excesses more consistently and for addressing the charge of human rights violations instead of brushing them aside. The politics of pragmatism should prompt it to do so, even if the old idealism has been cast aside.