India fumbles on Palestine
New Delhi has been far too slow to recognize that Israel ought to be a natural ally

Evan Schneider/UN Photo

Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, addresses the general debate of the sixty-sixth session of the General Assembly in New York on Sept. 14, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Instead of throwing its weight behind Israel—a natural ally for India—New Delhi has publicly backed Palestinian statehood

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  • India's latest pro-Palestinian tilt reveals a worsening problem

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  • When the chips are down, India should support a natural ally rather than mindlessly backing its reckless adversary

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With slowing economic growth, a publicly feuding cabinet, and a series of corruption scandals that have paralyzed governance, you might think the last thing India needs is a foreign policy mishap. But there's no other way to characterize New Delhi's full-throated support for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's dangerous grandstanding at the United Nations in pursuit of statehood.

"Nothing ought to obscure the fact that a strong Israel is fundamentally in India's interest." --Sadamand DhumeInstead of throwing its weight behind Israel—a natural ally with whom India shares more interests than it does with almost any other country—the left-leaning Congress Party-led government in New Delhi has publicly backed Palestinian brinkmanship on the statehood issue.

"The Palestinian question still remains unresolved and a source of great instability and violence," declared Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the United Nations last month. "India is steadfast in its support for the Palestinian people's struggle for a sovereign, independent, viable and united state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognizable borders side by side and at peace with Israel."

On the face of it, there's not much new in Mr. Singh's statement. India was the first non-Arab state to recognize Palestinian independence in 1988, and mouthing platitudes about support for the Palestinian cause while simultaneously deepening security and trade ties with Israel has been a hallmark of New Delhi's policy toward the region since it established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. The gratuitous reference to East Jerusalem—whose final status ought to be a matter of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations rather than distant pontification—has been made before, most recently on a state visit by Mr. Singh to Saudi Arabia in 2010.

Take a closer look, however, and India's latest pro-Palestinian tilt reveals a worsening problem. Since taking office in 2004, Mr. Singh's United Progressive Alliance government has halted what had been an upward swing in India-Israel ties by effectively starving them of public affirmation.

No Israeli prime minister has visited India since Ariel Sharon in 2003, under the then-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The last visit to Israel by an Indian foreign minister took place more than a decade ago, also under the BJP.

To be sure, no serious observer of Indian foreign policy sees New Delhi's diplomacy with Israel and the Arab-Muslim world as a zero-sum game. Below the radar, India-Israel relations continue to grow.

Two-way trade has ballooned to an estimated $5 billion this year from an anemic $200 million in 1992; about half of that is in diamonds. A trip to India after compulsory military service is now a rite of passage for many young Israelis—about 40,000 of them visit India each year.

Israeli and Indian technology and pharmaceutical firms have invested in each other's economies. And in 2008, space scientists in southern India launched Tecsar, an Israeli spy satellite reportedly aimed at improving the monitoring of Iranian military movements.

Over the past decade Israel has emerged as one of India's biggest arms suppliers—second only to Russia by some estimates—and India in turn is one of the Israeli defense industry's largest export markets. Among India's purchases: surveillance drones, surface-to-air missiles, advanced artillery, missile defense systems, airborne radar, and sensors to track cross-border infiltration by terrorists into Indian Kashmir.

Nonetheless, both India's decision to publicly back Mr. Abbas and the drying up of high-level political contacts—periodic visits by ministers of industry and agriculture don't count—betray an unfortunate truth. Nearly two decades after establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, India—especially the Congress Party—has yet to fully abandon either its old socialist instincts or its habit of holding a vital relationship hostage to the vagaries of domestic identity politics.

Part of the problem is domestic politics. Muslim voters account for about 14% of India's electorate. The Congress Party tends to assume they are viscerally hostile to Israel, although this remains an untested truism of Indian politics.

New Delhi also is trying to pander to Arab sentiment (India benefits from large remittances from Indian workers in the Gulf region, not to mention energy imports), which tends to favor Pakistan. Exacerbating these problems, the Congress Party, along with India's dwindling but still vocal communists, remains stuck in a time warp of supposed Third-World solidarity with "oppressed" Palestinians rather than understanding that as a rising power India's interests lie with democratic Israel.

Too few mainstream Indian politicians or intellectuals are willing to publicly make what ought to be a stunningly obvious case for Israel. Both India and Israel represent ancient civilizations whose land carries a special spiritual significance for most of its people. Despite living in tough neighborhoods, both have chosen (often messy) democracy over military dictatorship—you can drive the 2,500 miles between New Delhi and Jerusalem without encountering another plural society whose leaders are regularly elected to office.

Despite what conspiracy theorists may say, neither country has a quarrel with Islam—both house Muslim populations that enjoy more rights than their co-religionists in many places—but both are threatened by radical Islamist ideology and the terrorism it spawns. As former British colonies, India and Israel are kissing cousins of the Anglosphere, lands with distinct cultures that benefit from the liberal international order upheld by Anglo-American power.

Nothing ought to obscure the fact that a strong Israel is fundamentally in India's interest. When the chips are down, that ought to mean support for the democratically elected government of a natural ally rather than mindless backing for its reckless adversary.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.

 

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