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07 July, 2015

Tightrope walk on West Asia

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Israel was quick to claim that India’s abstention from voting on the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva, condemning the Gaza killings of 2014, marks a shift in its traditional stand. India was equally quick in asserting there has been no change in its position.

The UNHRC adopted the resolution with 41 votes in favour, one (the United States) against, and five abstentions. Israel’s ambassador in India publicly thanked all, including India, “who did not support yet another anti-Israel bashing resolution”.

Noting that when the Gaza killings came up in the UNHRC last year India had voted in favour of the resolution calling for an inquiry, Israeli media described this year’s abstention as reflective of a significant change. One newspaper said it was another sign of warming of Indo-Israeli ties since Modi became Prime Minister.

The Indian government said there was no change in policy. It abstained this year because of disagreement with the wording of the resolution. Last year’s resolution merely called for an inquiry into Israel’s Gaza raids. This year’s sought reference of the issue to the International Criminal Court.

India is not a signatory to the Rome Statute which set up the ICC and has consistently abstained during voting on resolutions which mention that body, an official spokesman said. 

This is no doubt a convincing explanation. However, reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Modi a day before the voting suggests there was some high-level persuasion.

Successive Indian governments have supported Palestine’s struggle against Israel. But the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), fountainhead of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva ideology, has a soft corner for Israel. Its early leaders were admirers of Nazi Germany. Ironically, after World War II, Israel took its place.

India recognised the state of Israel as soon as it was created but did not establish diplomatic relationship with it until 1992. Negotiations in this regard began when Israel’s Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan made an unannounced visit to India in 1978. AB Vajpayee, who later became the first BJP Prime Minister, was the External Affairs Minister in the Janata Party government in power at that time. 

India had entered into secret military deals with Israel even when there were no diplomatic ties. It received small arms from that country during the 1962 China war and the 1965 and 1971 conflicts with Pakistan.

Indo-Israeli relations warmed up between 1998 and 2004 under Vajpayee who believed Israel’s experience could be of help to India in dealing with the problem of terrorism. At his invitation Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited India on the second anniversary of the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center.

Under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government the military relationship grew further. Today Israel is a major supplier of arms to India, and the Israeli defence industry is heavily dependent upon exports to India.

Israel supplies India radar systems, drone aircraft and missiles for maritime defence. It has expressed readiness to set up units to manufacture defence equipment under Modi’s Make in India programme.

India has a Muslim population of 180 million, the third largest in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan. The Hindutva ideology renders the BJP less sensitive to the sentiments of this large religious minority than the Congress and other parties, and that makes it easy for its government to cosy up to Israel.

However, there are other factors which no government in India can ignore in formulating its West Asia policy.

One of them is India’s reliance on the region for more than 60 per cent of its crude oil imports. Last year the government decided to seek supplies from Latin America and Africa and raise domestic production of both oil and gas with a view to reducing the dependence on the Middle East. Progress in this regard will necessarily be slow.

Another factor the government cannot overlook is that more than five million Indians work in the Middle East. Last year India received $70.38 billion in remittances from its nationals working abroad. About 45 per cent f it came from the Gulf States.

In the circumstances, Modi has to do tight-rope walking. He is planning to visit Israel later this year and become the first Indian Prime Minister to do so. Indications are that he will include Palestine also in the itinerary. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 7, 2015.

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