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  Opinion   Columnists  23 Oct 2023  Bhopinder Singh | Delhi May Need West Asia Policy Shift Amid Support for Israel

Bhopinder Singh | Delhi May Need West Asia Policy Shift Amid Support for Israel

The writer is former lieutenant-governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry
Published : Oct 23, 2023, 12:02 am IST
Updated : Oct 23, 2023, 12:02 am IST

The recent attack by Hamas on Israel led to the unprecedented shedding of ostensible “neutrality” by New Delhi

An Israeli flag is placed next to a house destroyed by Hamas militants in Kibbutz Be'eri, Israel, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. The kibbutz was overrun by Hamas militants from the nearby Gaza Strip on Oct.7, when they killed and captured many Israelis. (AP/PTI)
 An Israeli flag is placed next to a house destroyed by Hamas militants in Kibbutz Be'eri, Israel, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. The kibbutz was overrun by Hamas militants from the nearby Gaza Strip on Oct.7, when they killed and captured many Israelis. (AP/PTI)

In past decades, Israeli commentators would often rue that New Delhi treated Tel Aviv like a “mistress”: happy to engage intimately in private but disowned in public. They legitimised the relationship formally with the concurrent opening of embassies in 1992, but the crucial military supplies from Israel to India in the 1965 and 1971 wars is one for the spooks. Even more clandestine was the purported go-ahead by Indira Gandhi in 1982 of an Osirak-style operation (Israeli jets daringly blew up an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981) to similarly destroy Pakistan’s nuclear facilities at Kahuta. Last-minute intervention by then US President Ronald Reagan is said to have abrogated this India-Israel mission. But despite such commonality of threats and mutual understanding, Delhi’s support for the Palestinians deterred normalising relations with Israel.

Contrary to popular perceptions, India’s dichotomous stand on Israel wasn’t just idealism, but rooted as much in realpolitik. With its energy needs from West Asia at stake, sizeable foreign exchange remittances from the Indian diaspora, and also over 50 invaluable votes in forums like the United Nations -- officially not recognising Israel due to “morality” had some solid practicalities, that remained unstated. It was an arrangement which worked well as Israel was content to work in the shadows, as that also meant it knowingly compromised its own equation with Washington, which was a firm Pakistan ally in 1965, 1971 or even 1982 when the Kahuta operation was murmured.

History and geography have made Israel extremely practical, and they work along with any country, irrespective of its ideology, if it does not endanger Israeli interests. Even today, despite all tensions besetting the United States and China and Russia, the Israelis harbour no major aversion to either and are willing to engage with both (Washington had to veto technology transfer to Beijing). For all its bloody past, it had normalised relations with Jordan and Egypt long ago, and more recently with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Talks with Saudi Arabia behind closed doors is the worst kept secret and Tel Aviv is similarly understanding of the societal concerns implicit for the Saudi authorities, to come out in the open about the same immediately.

With India, Israel was always extra-understanding. Jawaharlal Nehru had indulged in grandstanding on Palestine, but had also reached out to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion after the 1962 China tensions, Ben-Gurion had privately replied: “I am in total agreement with the views expressed by Your Excellency (Nehru) that it is incumbent upon us to do all in our power. All states big or small must be guaranteed of their sovereignty. We believe that every possible support should be lent to every measure contributing towards easing of tension on your borders so that India will once again be able to devote its undivided energies under your distinguished leadership to construction and development”.

During the Kargil War, when India still faced some technology sanctions, Israel had ignored international concerns and expedited supplies of mortar ammunition, laser-guided missiles, Heron and Searcher UAVs, etc. Since then, India has become Israel’s biggest and most dependable purchaser of weapons, besides a “strategic partner” and co-producer of weaponry. However, all along, India hadn’t diluted support for a “two-state solution”, that envisages a sovereign state of Palestine. Admittedly, the hypersensitivity on Palestinian concerns had got diluted (tellingly in 2015, India abstained from voting against Israel at UNHRC) -- though, the same lukewarmness about the Palestinian issue could also be said about the Arab sheikhdoms that were on a rapprochement overdrive with Tel Aviv.

The recent attack by Hamas on Israel led to the unprecedented shedding of ostensible “neutrality” by New Delhi, which entailed playing a mealy-mouthed “please all” position for some time. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new tweet -- “We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour” -- is unprecedentedly one-sided, and the Palestinians have Hamas to blame for that. While the neighbouring sheikhdoms have offered platitudinous contexts to rationalise Hamas’ attacks, make no mistake, the sheikdoms can never support a pro-Iran militia like Hamas. They were forced into adopting a “justifying” stance only as a continuation of Ummah sensibilities -- but in the deeply sectarian divide in West Asia, beyond the public postures, the Arab sheikhdoms fear the Iran and its proxies like Hezbollah, Houthis, Hamas, etc, far more than Tel Aviv.

New Delhi, therefore perhaps felt empowered to take an untraditional and overtly pro-Israel stance for the first time. In one dramatic stroke, Hamas laid to waste the high ground that the Palestinian cause always evoked, even as the world put it on the backburner, as practicality had necessitated thawing relations with Israel. While breaking ranks with the Hamas may not be publicly possible for the sheikhdoms (as yet), the widely believed intent of disrupting the Mideast peace plans at Iran’s behest will afford a short rope to Hamas’ belligerence. Such intolerance with Palestinian militias running amok had similarly backfired with Operation Black September, when the Jordanians had attacked the PLO in 1970-71 or when Lebanese forces carried out the Sabra-Shatila massacres against Palestinian militias in 1982. Now even pacifist nations like India are reneging on “neutrality” over the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as Hamas has simultaneously discredited the Palestinian position. The Middle East will now increasingly look like the landscape of the past and New Delhi will have to recalibrate its own stand in line with its needs and, as always, there may be a slip between the cup and the lip. For now, it will be Advantage Israel.

Tags: israel palestine conflict, gaza airstrikes, hamas