From pre-Independence to 1990s: India’s stand on Israel-Palestine has been tightrope walk

Through the decades, there were efforts to balance ideological positions with demands of realpolitik.

ByAnand Vardhan
From pre-Independence to 1990s: India’s stand on Israel-Palestine has been tightrope walk
Shambhavi Thakur
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Contrary to popular perception, the balancing act visible in India’s recent statement on the Gaza conflict at a UN Security Council session has been in the making for as many years as India has been independent. In fact, its moorings can be traced to even pre-Independence years. The pragmatism of India’s stand on the Israel-Palestine issue can be seen through the evolving patterns of India’s policy on Israel over the last eight decades.

On November 18, 1962, in the midst of the India-China border conflict, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to his Israeli counterpart David Ben Gurion to express gratitude for the weapons supplied by Israel in response to a cable he had sent on October 27.

“We are grateful for your concern for the serious situation that we face today in our border regions,” Nehru wrote. “I am sure you will appreciate that while India has never claimed an inch of territory belonging to another country and is traditionally and fundamentally wedded to ideals of peace and friendly settlement of disputes, she cannot but resist aggression on her own soil in the interest of safeguarding national integrity and maintaining respect for standards of international behaviour.”

While Israel supplying military support to India during its armed conflict with China is well-known, the series of exchanges between Nehru and Gurion came into the public domain in India as late as 2017. This was the year when the Hindu accessed Israeli archives, and the nature of communication between the leadership of the two countries showed that India and Israel “maintained contacts at the highest possible level, much before formal ties were established in January 1992”.

Gurion had responded to Nehru’s October 27 cable saying, “I am in total agreement with the views expressed by Your Excellency that it is incumbent upon us to do all in our power. All states big or small must be guaranteed of their sovereignty.”

This can be seen in the context of the pragmatic ways in which India had pursued national interest, balancing its support for the Palestine cause with the nurturing of ties with Israel over the last few decades. The Nehru-Gurion exchange constituted early signs of the dehyphenation attempted by India in its relations with the Arab world and Israel.

This attempt was remarkable, given the fact that in the initial years after Independence, the nature of India’s policy on Israel was largely defined by the stand taken by the Congress leadership before Independence. As the leading political organisation in India’s anti-colonial movement, the Congress felt the need to formally express its position on the issue in 1937 when a British parliamentary committee proposed the partition of Palestine. In a resolution passed in October 1937, the party expressed support for the Palestinian national movement. In some ways, the party’s view on the Jew-Arab question in Palestine was shaped by Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to the issue.

Gandhi’s way of looking at the Palestine issue had the imprint of both ideological as well as political considerations, as Simone Panter-Brick’s book, Gandhi and the Middle East (2008), analysed in some detail. In Gandhi’s writings, there are two instances, separated by eight years, when he articulated his views on the Palestine-Israel question.

In an article published in Harijan on November 26, 1938, Gandhi began by admitting that it was “a very difficult question” and that he was sympathetic to their “age-long persecution” of the Jews. But, he proceeded to see it in the light of the valid claims of the other side.

“My sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice,” he wrote. “The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me...Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?...Palestine belongs to the Arab in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.”

He also exhorted both the Jews and the Arabs to follow a non-violent approach to conflict resolution. He made it a point to say that he was not “defending the Arab excesses” in resisting what they rightly regarded as an “unwarrantable encroachment upon their country”. But he also noted the heavy odds faced by Palestine in such resistance as he condemned the violent nature of the fight for the homeland of the Jews “under the shadow of the British gun”.

Deploring the use of “the bayonet or the bomb” in the struggle, he urged Jews to seek settlement in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs, and by attempting a change of Arab heart. Essentially, he prescribed his non-violent satyagraha approach to the Jews if they were so adamant about settling in Palestine. For the rest of the world, he suggested that the “nobler course would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred.”

In her book, Panter-Brick observed that Gandhi could see two possibilities by making his views on the Palestine issue known. The primary one was, obviously, the use of his method of non-violent satyagraha to resolve a conflict that was attracting world attention. Additionally, it could also serve the political purpose of the Congress as it gave space to the sympathy that Indian Muslims had for the Arab cause. It was relevant in a phase when the Indian Muslim League was making significant political strides.

Gandhi addressed the issue again eight years later – an interval which also witnessed the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust unleashed on the Jews. In an article published in Harijan on July 21, 1946, he expressed deep anguish about how Jews had been “cruelly wronged by the world”. However, he stuck to his earlier view that the return of the Jews to Palestine, especially by force, wasn’t the way forward.

“In my opinion, they have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain,” he wrote.

After India attained Independence, the Jawaharlal Nehru-led government was reluctant to recognise the creation of the independent Israeli state in May 1948. Since the late 1930s, Nehru had disagreed with the idea of a homeland for settling Jews, and he saw it as an intrusion of colonial powers. He had argued that Palestine wasn’t an empty land waiting to be settled by foreigners.

In fact, India was one of the 13 countries which had chosen to vote against the United Nations plan for the partition of Palestine. In the UN session of 1949, India did not recognise the sovereign state of Israel. It eventually did only in 1950. Besides the anti-colonial legacy of India’s national movement, there were other pragmatic factors that could explain this two-year delay.

As this paper shows, different foreign policy scholars who studied the period have seen the role of different factors. The most important of them included the apprehension that immediately recognising Israel might push Arab states to back Pakistan on the Kashmir issue in the UN, the possible alienation of the Muslim minority in India, and its strategic effect on newly independent India’s ties with West Asian countries.

Nicolas Blarel, a political scientist at Leiden University, recalled that in May 1949, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Indian’s ambassador to the United States, told her Israeli counterpart Eliahu Eilat that the Kashmir situation was delaying India’s recognition of Israel. At the same time, Nehru was alert to the need of not doing anything to push the Arab world closer to Pakistan’s plan of using a pan-Islamic forum to exert pressure on India. This could be seen in what Joshua Falk cites: Nehru’s letter to chief ministers in which he underlined the need of not hurting the sentiments of friendly Arab countries.

Besides, the edge Arab countries, as oil-rich regions, could not be ruled out, especially given India’s heavy reliance on oil imports.

With a number of countries, including Iran and Turkey, formalising their recognition of Israel, India followed suit on September 17, 1950. Explaining the decision, Nehru said, “We would have recognised Israel long ago, because Israel is a fact. We refrained because of our desire not to offend the sentiments of our friends in the Arab countries.”

During this phase, however, India’s outreach to Arab countries continued, with Egypt gaining primacy in India’s West Asia policy. In 1956, during the Suez crisis precipitated by Israel, Britain and France attacking Egypt, India stood in solidarity with Egypt.

Yet by no means did that imply that India was not keeping an eye on emerging trends and evolving strengths of different countries in West Asia to make a cost-benefit analysis. However, India was still keen on being seen as distant from bilateral engagement with Israel. Nothing illustrates it better than the supplementary request that India made to Israel during the 1962 military conflict with China, in addition to the request that was mentioned in the beginning.

The archives revealed the following: “Not wishing to alienate its Arab friends, India had requested Israel to deliver the weapons in ships that did not fly the Israeli flags. However, Ben Gurion had put his foot down saying, ‘No flag . No weapons.’ The flags were eventually supplied in Israeli ships flying the Jewish state’s flag.”

Although India only formally established diplomatic relations with Israel as late as 1992, the archives revealed that informal contact between the two countries was in place at the highest level even in Nehru’s time.

However, in the years following Nehru, Indian persisted with its support for the Arab cause in the Israel-Palestine conflict. For instance, India criticised Israel’s role in the six-day war of 1967, and exhorted it to go back to its pre-war position. India even proposed a four-point formula to restore the pre-war territorial status. But the Indira Gandhi-led foreign policy was also aware of Israel’s steady growth in defence production prowess and top-notch intelligence gathering. In 1968, India’s Research and Analysis Wing established ties with Israel’s Mosad. In the 1971 war with Pakistan, India again received military supplies from Israel.

However, the imperatives of Cold War politics had its set of constraints in limiting India’s informal contact with Israel. By 1971, India had shed a substantial measure of its non-aligned posturing by signing the treaty of friendship and cooperation with the erstwhile Soviet Union. For all practical purposes, it was a military alliance and it pitted India against the rival US camp of which Israel was an important part.

Along with its long-held stand, the new element of Cold War camps in West Asia explained India’s two decisions in 1975: to recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as the legitimate political representative of Palestine, and backing the UN resolution which identified Zionism as a form of racism. However, by the end of the decade, the changes in West Asian geopolitics were obvious with dwindling Soviet interest in the Arab world, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the marked improvement in US-Egypt ties, and the steady disappearance of pan-Arab solidarity. It opened up space for new alignments.

To an extent, a combination of these factors made India look at Israel in a new light. The subtle shift could be seen from the fact that in 1985, despite India’s critical stand against the Israeli “wooden leg” military attack on the PLO headquarters in Tunis, India chose to abstain from voting on a UN resolution which called for expelling Israel from the UN. Second, Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi found time to meet his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres on the sidelines of the UNGA session the same year. Three years later, during a visit to the US, Rajiv Gandhi also met a contingent of US Congressmen who were more tilted towards the Jewish cause in Israel.

By the early 1990s, this process was further catalysed by major changes in world politics brought by the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. India was readjusting to new realities by offering support to the US in the first Gulf War against Iraq. The incentives for getting closer to the US were higher now and the normalisation of relations with Israel was certainly one of the primary ways to do that. It wasn’t surprising when, in 1991, India reversed its earlier stand and supported a US-backed resolution in the UN that sought the revocation of a 1975 resolution that had equated Zionism with racism. Moreover, the remarkable rise of Israel as a leading defence technology and arms supplier was another attraction that India couldn’t overlook for long.

These factors nudged the PV Narasimha Rao-led government to finally take the decision of establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. In many ways, there was an element of inevitability to this decision and it had become a matter of time.

In a little more than two-and-a-half decades of establishing diplomatic ties, India’s engagement with Israel has been a balancing act between finding many grounds of convergence as well as reaffirming its long-held moral support to the Arab cause in Palestine. However, the tightrope walk between demands of pragmatism and the legacy of ideological commitments made in the first half of the last century has been a feature of all foreign policy regimes of independent India.

Also Read :
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India and Israel do not share an ideological affinity
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