By Nikhil Umesh:
At the United Nations General Assembly last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reported as having said, “We are very excited by the prospects of greater and greater ties with India. We think the sky’s the limit.” And upon Netanyahu’s reelection this March, Modi took to his personal Twitter account, tweeting: “Mazel tov, my friend Bibi.” There’s more — the congratulations were tweeted in Hebrew.
It doesn’t stop there. Modi is set to become India’s first Prime Minister to visit Israel.
India’s relationship with Israel has been under close scrutiny by political commentators and journalists alike, as questions of whether solidarity with the Palestinian cause is being traded for military partnership with the Israeli state arise.
Recently, The Express Tribune reported that the Indian defence ministry has near finalized a contract with Israeli Aerospace Industries for the development of a medium-range surface-to-air missile system (MR-SAM). Israel is among India’s largest arms supplier, just behind Russia and the United States.
India And Israel: An [Un]likely Friendship
If history is to provide guidance, Modi’s amicability with Netanyahu is a stark departure from India’s anti-colonial legacy. India voted against Israel joining the United Nations in 1949. And from 1947 to 1992, India treated the Palestinian people as a populace fighting for sovereignty and an end to colonial occupation, reflecting India’s anti-colonial stance in the wake of its own hard-fought battle for independence.
Ties to Zionism, the nationalist and political movement for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, via India’s military trade with Israel, are nestled within the anti-Islam sentiments that have been associated with Modi and the BJP. And importantly, since Netanyahu described both India and Israel as “ancient civilizations“, questions arise as to whether Hindutva ideology aims to emulate Zionism by mythologizing the pasts of both nation states.
The Question Of Palestine
In the wake of Israel’s Summer 2014 military operation in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, the Indian government failed to pass a resolution condemning Israel’s actions, as the death toll mounted to over 2000 Gazans.
“There is absolutely no change in India’s policy towards Palestine, which is that we fully support the Palestinian cause while maintaining good relations with Israel,” said External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Swaraj’s sentiments of neutrality were challenged by those of Dr. Harsh Dobhal, editor of Combat Law journal: “The government’s policy of maintain[ing] equidistance in my opinion is not proper because Israel and Palestine cannot be treated at par. Israel is an occupier and Palestine is occupied.”
Looking To The Past
India’s strategic alliance with Israel brings into question a critical point of study: What role does a state previously occupied under colonial rule, India, have in taking on the struggles of Palestine? And is “support[ing] the Palestinian cause while maintaining good relations with Israel” within the realm of possibility?
In 1974, India was the first non-Arab state to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the official representative of Palestinian people. This was not a practice of neutrality by any means, and India’s current politics of fence-sitting isn’t either. Rather, it seems that Israel’s role in the militarization of India has proved to be a tool for forgetting India’s historical support for Palestinian sovereignty.