Why PM’s statement on Israel attacks springs no surprise, and isn’t quite opposite of Congress take

Questions of national security have taken centrestage in a country surrounded by two hostile neighbours.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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The early days of the war between Israel and the militant group Hamas has expectedly seen fierce fighting and aerial strikes. And as the conflict rages on in the Middle East, India’s initial response has been a clear expression of New Delhi’s solidarity with the people of Israel as victims of the attack by Hamas last Saturday. 

This could be seen in  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first reaction to the attacks, and later the assurance the PM gave to his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu about India’s stand when they discussed it on the phone earlier this week. At the same time, the ministry of external affairs hasn’t yet issued an official statement on how India is viewing the attacks and the ongoing war.

There is also talk of differences between how the BJP-led central government and the principal opposition party Congress have drafted their responses. In its resolution, the Congress Working Committee reiterated support for rights of Palestinian people to land and self-government.  There were reports about a few members of the party being “at unease” about the resolution skipping the mention of Hamas and terror. But, the Congress has denied any such disagreement within the party, and has stuck to the resolution passed early this week. 

Even if internal party matters of the Congress are kept aside, the different ways in which the BJP and Congress have viewed the current war in the Middle East can be examined, particularly their nature. 

This is important because a broader consensus across political parties has generally defined the practice of India’s foreign policy since Independence. That has ensured some essential elements of continuity amid change of governments at the centre. Even in the present case, the response of the government and the Congress may be seen as different views but not diametrically opposite. They are different in matters of emphasis, in what they chose to include and exclude. 

At the same time, the pull of domestic politics has meant that these differences have grown into a row; Congress has been accused of trying to avoid references to terror and Hamas for electoral gains. So it may need a look at how the issue has carved a political constituency for itself. 

While looking at the initial statements from the government and the Congress on attacks in Israel, few aspects need to be considered before arriving at a conclusion.

First, one has to be careful in not equating Hamas with Palestine. The former is merely an armed group claiming to fight for the cause of Palestine, but it isn’t synonymous with Palestine. There are, and there have been, other groups with the same objectives. So, India’s reference to “terror” last Saturday is linking it to Hamas, and not the land of Palestine, called even “occupied territory” by the advocates of Palestine freedom and statehood. To be clear, Hamas is a non-state actor, and its actions put it into the category of a terror group, if we go by even the simplest of definitions of terrorism in international relations.  

So any organised group, a non-state actor, with the intention of using violence, or using the threat of violence, against civilians for political objectives, is a terror group. That’s how Hamas would find it difficult to be called anything else in the larger part of the international community.

It seems the Congress resolution has avoided making the distinction between Palestine and Hamas. This conceptual segregation would itself have helped the text of the resolution in voicing concerns for Palestine and its people without downplaying the scourge of terrorism as an instrument of policy for the group.

For India’s foreign policy outlook, identifying with terror threats around the world, especially when led by non-state actors or sponsored by hostile states, is of vital importance. Given New Delhi’s decades-old efforts at international forums in highlighting the role of Pakistan-sponsored proxy terrorism in Kashmir, India has been striking a chord with Israel’s counter-terror positions and expertise. 

With the first decade of this century witnessing a string of terror attacks on India, a consensus on fighting international terrorism  could be taken as defining political common sense among political parties present in the country’s domestic system. The clarity on essential questions of national security became a key part of how political parties could pitch themselves into national political space.

That, however, seems to have skipped the CWC statement, and the reason for this could be traced to some conceptual incoherence.

Second, the Congress has rightly recalled the ideological legacy of the party’s support for the case of Palestine and its cause. However, this legacy was a blend of ideological pull and pragmatic considerations too. Moreover, it can’t be stretched to a point where it could lose sight of overt acts of terror.

The roots of the Congress position on the Palestine question could be traced back to the pre-Independence phase when Congress lent support to Palestinian national movement in 1937, the same year in which a British parliamentary committee had proposed partition of Palestine. In an earlier piece  I had tried to trace various strands of India’s ties with the Palestine cause and acceptance of Israel as a fact and pragmatic cultivation of ties with the Jewish nation.

Even if Mahatma Gandhi was sympathetic to the Jewish concerns, he didn’t favour the homeland solution as a moral or logical way of settling Jewish people; his writings in 1938 and 1946 elaborate further on it. 

After India’s Independence, India was one of the 13 countries which  voted against the United Nations plan for partition of Palestine; New Delhi recognised Israel in 1950, two years after its creation. Many scholars view it as a pragmatic move to avoid pushing Arab nations to back Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. 

A few examples of New Delhi’s support for Palestine in the last century are in order. 

India stuck to criticising Israel for the six-day war in 1967 and even exhorted a plan for restoring pre-war territorial status. In 1975, India recognised Palestine Liberation Organisation as the legitimate political representative of Palestine. Here besides the moral support, the imperative of Cold war dynamics, and India’s closeness to the USSR camp, especially after the 1971 treaty of friendship with Moscow, also meant that Israel couldn’t be overtly brought close. 

But, it’s significant to recall that India did find ways to get Israeli military supplies during the 1962 Indo-China war, and 1971 Indo-Pak war. Moreover, in 1962, Prime Minister Nehru sought help by writing to his Israeli counterpart David Ben Gurion. So even if the diplomatic ties with Israel were established during PV Narasimha Rao government in 1992, the informal contacts were maintained between Tel Aviv and New Delhi at the highest level. 

India had even established ties with Mossad in 1968. From the late 1970s, the shift in west Asian politics, Islamic Revolution in Iran, and other factors pushed India to reorder ties with Israel, particularly for Tel Aviv’s rising status as a high quality arms producer and supplier. The year 1985 proved a good example of such balancing – 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. It was also the year in which Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi found time to meet his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres on the sidelines of the UNGA session. 

In the next few years, the end of the Cold War and collapse of the USSR prodded India to establish diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992. This was also a decade when India firmly set its eyes on arms procurement from Israel.

However, it took a little more than a decade. In 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India, with a 150-member delegation, mostly consisting of arms dealers. AB Vajpayee was his Indian counterpart then heading a BJP-led NDA government. So, the role of Congress governments in power in 80s and 90s, as well as the Vajpayee led -BJP government, in working towards closer ties with Israel were incremental rather than mutually exclusive.

In the process, what has been important is that on the question of Palestine, India has been trying to de-hyphenate its ties with the Arab world and the Palestine cause from its ties with Israel. In this context, one may recall that PM Modi’s 2018 visit to Palestine was  described by Palestinian leaders as “historic” as he became the first Indian PM to visit Palestine. During his visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Indian PM reiterated India’s support for an independent Palestinian state living in a peaceful environment. 

Third, the talk of Palestine issue being used as a political constituency in India has preceded India’s Independence. Even in the late 1930s, there were views about Congress siding with the Palestine nationalist movement to retain Muslim support that the Muslim League was weaning away from it. In the post-Independence India, it’s arguable to what extent this has been a foreign policy call bordering on domestic political sensitivities in India. In this context, more recently, one may recall the debate in the early years of this century about India refusing to send troops for international forces in Iraq because the ruling party wasn’t sure about how the Muslim electorate would see such a move.

As far as the Palestine issue is concerned, there have been indications about the critical stand of some sections of Muslim political opinion against closer ties with Israel. In 2003, for instance, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited India, the visit was met with protests by Muslim groups as well as by some far-left political parties. But no major political party had raised any objection to the visit. 

In broader terms, India’s efforts at striking a balancing act of ties with Israel and extending long-held moral support to Palestinian cause is premised on the fact of delegitimising militant groups that claim to lead Palestinian cause. India’s current response has to be placed in that context while one awaits the external affairs ministry to issue a statement on how India is looking at the war that has introduced one more uncertain element in West Asia geopolitics. 

Moreover, India’s sensitivity on the issue of counter-terrorism is now political common sense as questions of national security have been occupying centrestage in a country surrounded by two hostile neighbours. 

Also see
article imageWhy India’s MEA still hasn’t issued an official statement on Israel-Palestine


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