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India’s Leanings towards Israel: Understanding the Policy Shift from the Lens of History

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India’s foreign policy towards Israel has undergone a paradigm shift since 1992 in view of the changing global geopolitical dynamics, aggregating transformation in bilateral relations. Present government has brought to it a new energy and clarity of articulation. The official de-hyphenisation of its relations with Israel and Palestine mark a substantial change in its understanding of the Middle Eastern politics.

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India and Israel established full diplomatic relations in 1992 and since then the bilateral relationship between the two countries has flourished at the economic, military, agricultural and political levels. Both countries see themselves as isolated democracies threatened by neighbors that train, finance and encourage terrorism, therefore both countries also view their cooperative relationship as a strategic imperative.

Relations between Israel and India have not always been warm. Although both the states have a common colonial past, their post-independence course was apparently diverse on account of different factors that kept them apart for a long period. While India led the Non-Aligned Movement and maintained close ties with the Arab world and the Soviet Union, Israel due to circumstantial reasons had to rely on United States and Western Europe. India’s large Muslim population was another major obstacle in building closer relationships with Israel.

However, as soon as India passed recognition to Israel and established diplomatic ties in 1992 the trade and strategic ties between the two states have witnessed an immense growth. The key to the growing India-Israel ties, however, is in the realm of security and defense. With the multi-billion dollars project for the modernization of Indian army India turned into a hot market in the west including Israel. India is the number one export target of Israel’s defense industries. Not only Israel has found a huge market for arms sale in India (about 7.2 billion dollars in 2018) the latter too has benefitted in availing the missiles, sensors, UAV surveillance systems, drones and air defense systems from Israel. Their relations have entered into a new phase and India as officially de-hyphenated its relation with Israel and Palestine marking a significant shift in India’s strategic thinking.

Indian Perspective of Palestine

India’s solidarity with Palestinian people and its support for Palestinian cause took shape during Indian freedom struggle against British colonialism. In 1938, on the proposal to create a homeland for Jews in Palestine, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “my sympathy for the Jews does not blind me to the requirements of Justice. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs’. In 1947 India voted against the partition of Palestine at the United Nations General Assembly and India was the only non-Arab and Non-Muslim country to do so. Post- Independence Indian foreign policy was based on the principle of “empathy with Palestine”. In 1974, India became the first non-Arab country to recognize Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinian.

India recognized the state of Palestine in 1988, when Palestine Authority (PA) a self- government body was created as a result of Oslo Peace accord. India voted in favour of UN Resolution against constructing West Bank wall by Israel in 2003 and voted for accepting Palestine as a full member of UNESCO in 2011. In 2012 India voted in favour of upgrading the status of Palestine to a ‘non-member state’ in United Nations.

Several factors counted for India’s pro-Palestine policy. The Indian leanings towards Palestine in the post-independence era are because of its belief that the Zionist movement is the creation of British and American imperialism which later on played important role in the creation of Israel. Influenced by socialism, Indian leadership during 1930s had an understanding that the Zionist movement is working under the influence of European capitalist ideas of ‘nationalism’ and ‘colonization’ that had made the creation of Israel imminent in the Middle East. In the meantime, a considerable size of Muslim Population of India was always sympathetic to the Muslim population in Palestine. India also did not want to annoy Arab states because of oil imports and the interests of more than 7 million Indians working in Arab world. India’s co-operation with the Soviet Union during cold war era and desire to counter Pakistan with the support of Arab nations was another reason for its pro-Palestine policy.

India-Israel Relations during and After Cold War Period

During cold war period India-Israel relations were marked by a degree of reservation or many times by distant hostility. India’s independence and Israel’s declaration of statehood came in successive years, but both nascent democracies chose divergent foreign policies. While Israel adopted Western-oriented foreign policy, India followed the non-aligned path and forged relations with several Arab states. Israel’s various Western pivots and Arab hostility made Prime Minister Nehru apprehensive of pursuing close diplomatic relations with Israel. Enlisting Arab support for the Kashmir cause was seen as crucial in those days. This, along with Indian sympathy for the Palestinian cause, delayed the establishment of official diplomatic relations between the two countries by almost 45 years till 1992.

Disintegration of the USSR in 1991 brought about a new era in India-Israel relations. During cold war era India was depended heavily on the Soviet Union for arms support and its disintegration posed serious questions to the Indian administration. In the post-cold war era, with the rise of United States as sole super power India turned to Israel, which had developed a competitive advantage in the armaments industry. It must be noted, however, that this change in attitude was influenced by many other reasons.

Firstly, with the fall of Soviet Union, India embarked on a process of economic liberalization that included a drastic reduction in import tariffs and the removal of restrictions on foreign direct investment. India also saw this as an opportunity to reposition itself in a new world order, and in 1992 established formal diplomatic relations with Israel. As its embassy opened in Tel Aviv, India cautiously built its relations with Israel while maintaining its official commitment to the Palestinian cause. Secondly, Israel signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and participated in various bilateral peace negotiations with Palestine under official international auspices in an attempt to resolve the conflict. Thirdly,the deep differences between Arab countries and India’s failure in acquiring Arab support for the Kashmir cause.

The 1980s saw a marked rise in Islamic terrorism in India and Israel. While Israel began to deal with the first Intifada, India faced a vigorous separatist movement in Kashmir, both of which resulted in the loss of numerous lives. The 1970s and 1980s also saw the weakening of the left-leaning parties of both countries – the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Labour Party. However, India-Israel relations have truly taken off with the ascension to power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right wing leader in 2014. The NDA governement led by Modi developed a close relationaship with his Israeli counterpart and became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in 2017. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to which PM Modi belongs, enjoys an ideological similarity to the Israeli Likud Party, with a common Islamic antipathy. So there was tectonic shift in the Indian foreign policy after 2014.

The Irreversible Progress

In 1992 when the government established full diplomatic relations, the bilateral relationship between the two countries has blossomed at the economic, military, agricultural, space research and political levels.Israel was one of the rare countries to directly help India during the Kargil War.  In 2002 when India was planning to undertake a military strike against Pakistan as part of Operation Parakram(response to Indian Parliament attack), Israel supplied hardware through special planes. Now, India is the world’s largest buyer of Israeli weaponry and in 2013 India was the third largest trading partner of Israel in Asia. Apart from defense cooperation, Israel has intensified its cooperation in agriculture with the adoption of modern agricultural technologies to increase the productivity.

India traditionally believes in the two state solution and supports the establishment of a sovereign independent and a viable state of Palestine. However, over the years, the Indian government has diluted its reaction to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. In 2014 India favoured a UN resolution which established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law in the ‘Occupied Territories’ during ‘Operation Protective Edge’. In 2015 India abstained at the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) on a resolution welcoming the report of the Commission of Inquiry. It was the first time India refused to vote against Israel. But in May 2021 on the current hostilities between two parties, India at the UN Security Council meeting called for an immediate de-escalation of the situation.

India Needs to Balance its Approach

Israel wants India to end its pro-Palestine policy. Keeping in view the advances strategic understanding and the defense and technological ties with Israel, India can’t overlook the Israel’s expectations.  However, while going beyond strategic relations with Israel, India cannot afford to ignore its crucial energy ties with Iran and the Gulf countries. Also, it should not be forgotten that India requires the firm endorsement of its candidature from the Arab countries that form a large group in the UN General Assembly. India has been very keen to preserve a pragmatic balancing act between regional players in the West Asian region like Saudi Arabia and Iran. On similar lines, India should be cautious enough while backing Israel and should adopt a more cautious approach while dealing with Israel and Palestine. Today, Israel is second only to Russia as India’s largest weapons supplier. But while Russian supplies fell by 47 percent in 2015-2019, imports from Israel increased by 175 percent and the Indian shares 46 percent of Israel’s exports. Both countries are part of the Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism and have signed agreements on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, cooperation in homeland security, protection of classified material, and cybersecurity. Officially, India now considers Israel a strategic partner as both countries—each under its right-wing leadership—position themselves as bastions of progress and democracy while surrounded by hostile Muslim nations. In this sense, they consider each other to be natural allies, engaged in a historic struggle against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalist forces.

Trade, cultural exchange, and strategic partnerships including the arms trade are, of course, the building blocks of international relations. But as India now openly expresses (and celebrates) its support for Israel at international forums and Israel, in return, expresses its support for India’s legal and constitutional initiatives, it is evident that the India-Israel relationship is no longer purely a matter of realpolitik; it is also being strengthened by a shared ideology. It may be too early to assess the long-term impact of such an alliance.

Dr. Devender Sharma specializes in Middle Eastern Studies. Currently he is Assistant Professor, in Political Science at Centre of Excellence, Government College, Sanjauli, Shimla (H.P) (India).

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UAE-Israel relations risk being built on questionable assumptions

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A year of diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel has proven to be mutually beneficial. The question is whether the assumptions underlying the UAE’s initiative that led three other Arab countries to also formalise their relations with the Jewish state will prove to be correct in the medium and long term.

UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed laid out the strategic assumptions underlying his establishment of diplomatic relations, as well as its timing, in a conversation with Joel C. Rosenberg, an American-Israeli evangelical author and activist, 18 months before the announcement.

Mr. Rosenberg’s recounting of that conversation in a just-published book, Enemies and Allies: An Unforgettable Journey inside the Fast-Moving & Immensely Turbulent Modern Middle East, constitutes a rare first-hand public account of the Emirati leader’s thinking.

Mr. Rosenberg’s reporting on his conversation with Prince Mohammed is largely paraphrased by the author rather than backed up with quotes. The UAE’s interest in building good relations with American Evangelicals as part of its effort to garner soft power in the United States and project itself as an icon of religious tolerance, and Mr. Rosenberg’s willingness to serve that purpose, add credibility to the author’s disclosures.

Mr. Rosenberg’s reporting, wittingly or unwittingly, has laid bare the potential longer-term fragility of the relationship that is evident in Prince Mohammed’s timing for the UAE’s recognition of Israel as well as the assumptions on which the Emirates has argued that relations would contribute to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What emerges is that the UAE and Israel have a geopolitical interest in cooperating to contain Iran and militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen that are associated with the Islamic republic. They also reap economic benefit from the formalisation of a relationship that has long existed de facto.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, the implication is that public support for the relationship could prove to be fickle even though comment on social media in a country that tightly polices freedom of expression was dominated by supporters of the Emirati government.

Prominent Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla described the public backing as “a show of support for the government rather than a show of support for ‘normalization’ (with Israel) as such.” Mr. Abdulla was speaking in May as Israeli warplanes bombarded the Gaza Strip in a conflict, sparked by protests in East Jerusalem, with Hamas, the Islamist group that governs the territory.

He noted that “no matter what your national priorities are at the moment or regional priorities are at the moment, when stuff like this happens, the Palestinian issue comes back and hits you.”

It was this sensitivity that persuaded Prince Mohammed that the door would close on establishing diplomatic relations with Israel without a solution to the Palestinian problem if then Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu were to go ahead with his plans to annex parts of the West Bank occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.

“The only way to stop Netanyahu from grabbing what the Emiratis saw as Palestinian land was to go full Godfather and make Bibi an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname.

A proposal by the Trump administration that the UAE and other Arab states sign a non-aggression and non-belligerency pact with Israel without establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state gave Prince Mohammed the opening to push his plan.

“MbZ was open to the idea, but he now realized it would not be enough to pull Netanyahu away from his desire to annex large swaths of the West Bank. The only way to get what he wanted, MBZ recognized, was to give Netanyahu what he wanted most – full peace, full recognition, full normalization. But MbZ would have to move fast” to pre-empt the Israeli prime minister Mr. Rosenberg summarised, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

Quoting then Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, rather than Prince Mohammed, Mr. Rosenberg regurgitates hopes publicly expressed by Emirati officials that the establishment of diplomatic relations would reinvigorate moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The establishment of diplomatic relations promised to be “a 360-degree success, one that goes beyond trade and investment,” Mr. Rosenberg quoted Mr. Gargash as saying.

Emirati economy minister Abdulla Bin Touq said the UAE hoped to boost trade with Israel to US$1 trillion over the next decade. Emirati officials were further banking on the fact that strong cultural and people-to-people ties – absent in Israel’s initial peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan in the 1980s and 1990s – would put flesh on a skeleton of Arab-Israeli relations and ensure that Israel refrains from acts like annexation that would upset the apple cart.

Mr. Netanyahu’s successor, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has put those hopes to bed. He has unequivocally rejected the notion of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, refused to negotiate peace with the Palestinians during his term, and suggested that the improvement of social and economic conditions would satisfy Palestinian aspirations.

That could prove to be a risky bet given a shift to the right in Israeli public opinion, the growing influence of conservative religious segments of society, and the fact that some 600,000 Israelis who populate settlements built on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem make a two-state solution de facto impossible. That would leave a one-state solution as the only solution.

For that to work, Palestinians would have to buy into Mr. Bennett’s approach that is informed by the concept of “shrinking the conflict” that seeks to marginalise the Palestinian problem, put forward by Micah Goodman, an Israeli academic who chose to build a home in a West Bank settlement.

“Twenty per cent of Israelis are on the extremes, for either withdrawing from the territories or annexing them,” Mr. Goodman says. “The remaining 80 percent who don’t want to rule over the territories or relinquish them don’t have a way to talk about the conflict, so they just don’t think about it. Which is the tragedy of the Israeli center.”

Shrinking the conflict, rather than solving it, is what Mr. Goodman calls “replacing indifference with pragmatism.” He suggests that initiatives such as the creation of corridors between Palestinian enclaves on the West Bank and a border crossing to Jordan “up to the level that the Palestinians feel they are ruling themselves, without the capacity to threaten Israel” would tempt Palestinians to buy into his concept. Mr. Goodman’s plan would ensure, in his words, that Palestinians “don’t get anything like the right of return, a state or Jerusalem.”

Prince Mohammed appears, based on Mr. Rosenberg’s account of his conversations with the UAE leader and other Emirati officials, to have adopted the approach.  

“MbZ believed that by breaking the mould and making peace with Israel without giving the Palestinian leadership veto over his freedom of movement, he could open the door for other Arab countries to see the benefits and follow suit,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote.

Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco were quick to follow the UAE’s example. Some 300 Iraqi tribal and religious leaders, activists and former military officers called last week for diplomatic relations with Israel in a gathering in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil.

“Just as we demand that Iraq achieve federalism domestically, we demand that Iraq join the Abraham Accords internationally. We call for full diplomatic relations with Israel and a new policy of mutual development and prosperity,” said Wisam Al-Hardan, a spokesman for the group and onetime tribal militia leader that aligned with the United States to fight al-Qaeda in 2005.

Mr. Rosenberg noted that “as more Arab states normalized relations with Israel, MbZ and his team believed it could create the conditions under which the Palestinians could finally say yes to a comprehensive peace plan of their own with Israel.”

That may prove to be over-optimistic. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly this week, President Mahmoud Abbas warned that the Palestine Authority would withdraw its recognition of Israel and press charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court if Israel did not withdraw in the next year from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and lift the 14-year-long blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The assumption underlying Prince Mohammed’s hopes that Palestinians as well as Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon for that matter, would ultimately fall into line, creates a false equation between most Arab states and those bordering on Israel or under Israeli occupation.

Most Arab states like the UAE have existential issues with Israel that need to be resolved, which makes public opinion the potentially largest constraint on recognition of the Jewish state. There is no doubt that for Palestinians the issue is nothing but existential. The same is true for Jordan that has historic connections to the West Bank and whose population is more than half of Palestinian descent.

Similarly, Lebanon and Syria host large numbers of Palestinian refugees. Syria, moreover, has its own issues with Israel given the latter’s occupation of the Golan Heights since 1967.

Improving the social and economic conditions of the Palestinians are unlikely to satisfy their minimal needs or those of Israel’s immediate neighbours. Not to mention what the accelerated prospect of a de facto one-state solution to the Palestinian problem would mean for an Israel confronted with the choice of being a democratic state in which Palestinians could emerge as a majority or a Jewish state that sheds its democratic character and claim to be inclusive towards its citizens.

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Syria: 10 years of war has left at least 350,000 dead

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A decade of war in Syria has left more 350,200 people dead, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on Friday, noting that this total was an “under-count of the actual number of killings”.

These are a result of a war that spiralled out of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Based on the “rigorous work” of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she said that the tally, which includes civilians and combatants, is based on “strict methodology” requiring the deceased’s full name, the date of death, and location of the body.

People behind the numbers

In the first official update on the death toll since 2014, Ms. Bachelet informed the Council that more than one in 13 of those who died due to conflict, was a woman – 26,727 in all – and almost one in 13 was a child – a grim total of 27,126 young lives lost.

The Governorate of Aleppo saw the greatest number of documented killings, with 51,731 named individuals.

Other heavy death tolls were recorded in Rural Damascus, 47,483; Homs, 40,986; Idlib, 33,271; Hama, 31,993; and Tartus, 31,369.

Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights”, reminded the High Commissioner.

“We must always make victims’ stories visible, both individually and collectively, because the injustice and horror of each of these deaths should compel us to action.”

More accountability needed

Her office, OHCHR, is processing information on alleged perpetrators, recording victims civilian or combatant status and the type of weapons used, Ms. Bachelet said.

To provide a more complete picture of the scale and impact of the conflict, the UN agency has also established statistical estimation techniques to account for missing data.  

The High Commissioner explained that documenting deaths complements efforts to account for missing people and that her office has been helping the families of the missing, to engage with international human rights mechanisms.

Given the vast number of those missing in Syria, Ms. Bachelet echoed her call for an independent mechanism, with a strong international mandate, to “clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people; identify human remains; and provide support to relatives”.

No end to the violence

Today, the daily lives of the Syrian people remain “scarred by unimaginable suffering”, the UN human rights chief said, adding that they have endured a decade of conflict, face deepening economic crisis and struggle with the impacts of COVID-19.

Extensive destruction of infrastructure has significantly affected the realization of essential economic and social rights, and there is still no end to the violence.

It is incumbent upon us all to listen to the voices of Syria’s survivors and victims, and to the stories of those who have now fallen silent for ever”, the High Commissioner concluded.

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Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds

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The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.

It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.

The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.

Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.

Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.

Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.

There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.

The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.

This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.

The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.

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