The shift in nuance means the Modi government is no longer insisting that Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory be ended in toto.
New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have been the first Indian prime minister to make an official visit to Palestine but his three-hour stopover in Ramallah on Saturday saw him produce another first – a dilution of India’s position that Israel would have to end its illegal occupation of all Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, in order for Palestine to achieve full independence and statehood.
In a prepared speech delivered in the presence of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Modi endorsed a “sovereign, independent” Palestine, but dropped two crucial adjectives – ‘united’ and ‘viable’. These now join a list of words that already appear to have disappeared from the Indian diplomatic playbook including a “two state solution” to the conflict between Israel and Palestine and ‘East Jerusalem as capital’ of a future Palestinian state.
Observers believe the dropping of the latest two words – or principles – is perhaps a result of New Delhi hedging its bets on the new ‘peace plan’ proposed by the United States and backed by the Israelis.
On February 10, Prime Minister Modi – who flew in to Ramallah from Amman, Jordan by helicopter after meeting the Jordanian king – stood next to President Abbas and said in Hindi, “भारत, फिलीस्तीन के शांतिपूर्ण माहौल में शीघ्र एक संप्रभू, स्वतंत्र देश बनने की आशा करता है। (India hopes to see a sovereign, independent state of Palestine in a peaceful manner soon).”
The latest change in semantics comes less than two months after Modi’s articulation of the traditional Indian position on Palestine. On November 25, he had issued a statement on the occasion of the international day of solidarity with Palestine. “We hope for early realisation of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine state, coexisting peacefully with Israel,” he said.
Even when Modi last stood publicly next to Abbas in May 2017 in New Delhi, he had specifically mentioned the hope for a “sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestinian state”. India had invited the Palestinian president to India ahead of Modi’s trip to Israel, which, in a break from Indian diplomatic tradition, was scheduled only as a stand-alone visit to the Jewish state and not to Palestine.
P.R. Kumaraswaramy, a West Asian expert at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi had noted at the time that Modi’s reference to a “united’ Palestine meant that India “differs with the current Israeli government which is gravitating towards a one-state solution, namely, Israel without a Palestinian state”. He noted that Palestinians have been effectively living for a decade under two political entities – the West Bank under the Palestine National Authority, and Gaza, ruled by the Islamist Palestinian party Hamas.
Support for a united and viable Palestinian state means opposing the ongoing Israeli attempts to carve out huge tracts of Palestinian land (and acquifers) in the occupied West Bank for Israeli settlers. But with the growing bonhomie between Modi and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Indian side appears to be diluting its opposition to the Israeli occupation.
A former Indian diplomat who had dealt with India’s West Asia policy while in office said that the dropping of the words ‘united’ and ‘viable’ was perhaps a reflection of New Delhi’s understanding that there was no going back to the pre-1967 borders, before Israel illegally occupied the West Bank and Gaza. “Palestinian territories are now no longer contiguous. There are scattered all over with Israeli land in between,” he said.
The new Modi formulation is also in line with Israel’s ruling Likud party position that Palestine should not have access to ports and airports in order to ensure the security of Israel.
According to A.K. Pasha, a professor of West Asian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the dropping of ‘united’ and ‘viable’ by India “had to be seen in terms of ground realities, which the Israelis are presenting as a fait accompli in the current peace plan”.
Zikrur Rahman, who was India’s diplomatic representative to Palestine from 2006 to 2008, said that there has definitely been a big shift from India on Palestine as demonstrated by Modi’s remarks.
“India’s historical position and unwavering support for a sovereign, independent, contiguous Palestine state co-existing peacefully with Israel with East Jerusalem as capital, is not being reiterated…. India is avoiding it,” he told The Wire.
Rahman also noted that while the Indian prime minister had made a visit to Palestine, the changes in India’s public statements marked a subtle shift in support of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated position. “The Israelis are creating facts on the ground which are being touted as ground realities,” he said.
Pasha pointed out that Israel had been courting regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the Palestinian issue as part of its overall strengthening of ties with the Arab world against Iran. However, Rahman said that it would be very difficult for an Arab state to give up on core issues like East Jerusalem.
India, however, did cast a ‘yes’ vote on the Arab league-sponsored resolution in the UN General Assembly that called upon the US not to take any steps that would alter the status of Jerusalem.
Modi did not refer to the two-state solution in his Ramallah speech, in keeping with the fact that this concept has lately been absent from Indian diplomatic statements over the last one year – including in Modi’s remarks in May 2017 during the visit of the Palestinian president.
During Modi’s visit to Ramallah on Sunday, India and Palestine exchanged five agreements, which includes the of setting up a $30 million super-speciality hospital, a women’s empowerment centre, a national printing press, two schools and a floor for a new school. India has also agreed to set up an Institute of Diplomacy in Palestine.