Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | India’s stand on Palestine & Muslim factor at home

Columnist  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

India's support for Palestine in the UN raises questions amid domestic political dynamics and its $1.1 billion military deal with Israel

India’s $1.1 billion purchase of military aircraft from Israel which the United States had to sanction also highlights the complexities and contradictions of the situation. The agreement now is that Israel will install its Phalcon system. (Image: X)

India must be careful to ensure that its stand on Palestine is not seen as an extension of the domestic political controversy involving Muslims. In the past, the Israelis have dismissed India’s courtship of West Asia’s Islamic powers as the then ruling Congress Party’s sop to Muslim voters at home. Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reported mockery of Muslims suggests that today’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party can afford not to pander to the Indian Muslim lobby.

India’s $1.1 billion purchase of military aircraft from Israel which the United States had to sanction also highlights the complexities and contradictions of the situation. The agreement now is that Israel will install its Phalcon system – an advanced communications, electronic intelligence, and radar system able to provide simultaneous long-range tracking of multiple air and surface targets -- on three Russian-supplied aircraft for delivery to India within the next two or three years.

Of course, New Delhi fully supported a sovereign Palestine in the recent United Nations General Assembly debate on the subject. Ruchira Kamboj, India’s UN representative, told the media: “In keeping with our long-standing position, we support the membership of Palestine at the UN and, therefore, we have voted in favour of this resolution.” Her endorsement of the view of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, that “the State of Palestine is qualified for membership in the United Nations”, in accordance with Article 4 of its Charter and “should, therefore, be admitted”, rejected the claim of American hawks like the Republican John Bolton, former ambassador to the UN as well as national security adviser, that Palestine is not a State since it has neither formal boundaries nor sovereign authority.

Even less can Ms Kamboj have shared the murderous view of the Republican Senator from South Carolina, Lindsay Graham, who suggested in an NBC interview that Gaza, where Israeli bombardment has already massacred some 35,000 Palestinians, 70 per cent being infants, women and children, should be hit by nuclear bombs.

But Israel’s hysterical response to the UN move which the Biden administration’s veto aborted, warned that no solution is possible until attitudes have changed radically and there is some understanding of motives on both sides. While Palestinians must convince the US and the world that Hamas’ murderous October 7 spree will never again be repeated, and that they are prepared to co-exist in peace with an Israel that many Americans see as their most reliable ally abroad, no one knows what triggered the initial outrage. Was it the festering grievance of the Nakba (Catastrophe), whose 75th anniversary has just passed, or was there some fresh provocation?

Israel must similarly convince the Palestinians and the world of their willingness to live in peace next to a sovereign Palestine. That includes explaining the purpose of the four-mile Netzarim Corridor, or Route 749, that the Israeli Army has dug from east to west, from the Gaza-Israeli border to the Mediterranean Sea. Many think the corridor is intended to ensure permanent military surveillance by the Israeli Defence Forces of even remote residential habitations throughout the Gaza Strip and facilitate Israeli raids in northern and central Gaza.

The BJP’s perception of India’s Muslim minority (and, indeed, of Muslims in general) is another imponderable. Even without Mr Modi dragging them into the election debate with pejorative references, Israeli analysts have always held that the apparent aversion to Israel that Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi displayed had nothing to do with not alienating Islamic members of the UN whose votes India wanted over the Kashmir dispute, and everything to do with the Congress Party’s domestic vote bank. Senior Israeli diplomats argued that only Muslim voters kept Mrs Gandhi in office. Proud of not needing this particular communal crutch at home, the BJP can afford to neglect Palestinians, especially since Mr Modi both values his friendship with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and sees a firm stand against terrorism as essential for India’s own security.

Moreover, given political realities, the Algerian proposal, claiming the support of the Arab Group, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Non-Aligned Movement, and “countless peace-loving countries”, was doomed to failure. Despite the pro-Palestinian upsurge in university campuses across America, Washington cannot ignore its conventional strategic calculations and the power of domestic lobbies including 6.5 million American Jews who cannot forget the horrors of the Holocaust.

It may be recalled that when P.V. Narasimha Rao decided in 1992 to mend fences with Israel, he entrusted the task to Lalit Mansingh in India’s embassy in Washington. Ambassador Mansingh sought the cooperation of two organisations, the Anti-Defamation League of Bnai B’rith and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee with 55,000 members, a $14.2 million budget and rated by Fortune magazine as Washington’s second most influential lobby, after the American Association of Retired Persons. Individually and collectively powerful, the members of these two organisations helped Mr Mansingh to consolidate relations and establish strong political and strategic links.

The US role as interlocutor, political backer and arms supplier is crucial.

Earlier, US pressure forced Israel to cancel the proposed sale of four similar Phalcon early warning systems to China. The deal with India almost foundered on US concerns regarding Pakistan. India’s delivery of BrahMos missiles to the Philippines under a $375 million deal, the sale to Armenia of the Swathi weapon-locating radar system and other items that are expected to push India’s defence exports up substantially, and the Indian Air Force’s induction of the first C-295 medium tactical transport aircraft days after it was handed over in the Spanish city of Seville all confirm closer military cooperation with the US. India will not jeopardise those ties. Nor can Palestine expect to benefit from the nuanced diplomacy that allowed Narasimha Rao to defy the US by quietly allowing Cuba to buy 10,000 metric tons of non-basmati rice on commercial terms, the price being eventually written off.

It’s the psychology that must change if Nakba memories are not to poison communal relations for all time. Calling Sonia Gandhi’s late political secretary, Ahmed Patel, “Ahmed Mian”, or referring to Rahul Gandhi as “Shehzada” makes the insult specifically communal and belittles an entire community of 20 crores. The 22 languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution and the 38 other claimants to such listing are all rich in pejorative words for people who are different. Imagine the babel of disharmony, the chaos and conflict, to which this great nation would be reduced if such disparaging terms gained popular currency.