Ever since ‘the Palestine question’ was brought before the United Nations by the British in 1947, India has shown a balance, a sense of perspective and of history in its response to Israel. It has wanted to be and has been singularly fair to the two principal communities involved: the world’s war-ravaged Jews who settled in the new country with British help, and the doughty Arabs whose lands were alienated. India’s position has been appreciated, respected by all for its honesty and integrity.
When Israel was formed, under international aegis, India recognised the new state. When Israel attacked and occupied more land in Palestine, turning hundreds of thousands of Arabs into refugees, India said that was wholly wrong, outrageous. And since the occupation continued, with Israel becoming more and more bellicose, India held back diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv and upwardly calibrated its ties with Palestinian leaders, notably Yasser Arafat.
No Indian Prime Minister, from Jawaharlal Nehru who first recognised Israel, to Narasimha Rao who initiated diplomatic ties, to A.B. Vajpayee who received a visit from the then Israeli Prime Minister, right up to Manmohan Singh, ever visited Israel. It was important to make the statement, to Israel, to the Arab world, to the world at large that so long as Israel was expansionist, and sought to dominate or conquer even the rest of Palestine, violating numerous resolutions of the UN, Israel was an offender. Justice to the world’s Jews is one thing, Zionism quite another.
India did not exculpate Arab counter-violence either. It knew that justice for the Arabs is one thing, Hamas’s violent acts of terror quite another.
But at the core, India saw that the problem was the ground reality of Israel’s holding on to Arab’s greatly prized lands, which Israel had seized by force, in the face of international objections and UN resolutions in the passing of which India was always vocal, even vociferous.
Until that ground reality of occupation remained unchanged, India’s fair and just and humane policy needed no change.
And now, it has changed.
I believe Prime Minister Narendra Modi was ill-advised to make his just-concluded trip. Worse, to make it a love fest.
Before going into the implications of the visit, a review of the history of that problem is essential.
As long as one hundred years ago, on August 23, 1917, the House of Commons discussed the subject of ‘Palestine for the Jews’ in what has become famous as the Balfour Declaration, so named after the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour. As the only Jew in the British cabinet at the time, Edward Samuel Montagu, who was later to be a Secretary of State for India, could have been expected to support the idea of Palestine for the Jews. But Montagu being a fair minded man, he did the opposite. He passionately opposed the motion and submitted a memorandum to the cabinet in which he said: “ Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen… I assert that there is not a Jewish nation… When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country…It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mohammedan history… I would say… that the Government will be prepared to do everything in their power to obtain for Jews in Palestine complete liberty of settlement and life on an equality with the inhabitants of that country who profess other religious beliefs. I would ask that the Government should go no further.”
Montagu was heeded by Balfour in part, but not in the main. The declaration of November 2, 1917, stated “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
A separate state of Palestine thus got “mandated”, mandated by Britain.
India’s long history of balanced engagement
In 1937, Nehru wrote to Krishna Menon about the Indian National Congress’ stand: “Our position is that Palestine must be essentially an Arab country and independent. Further, that the Arabs and Jews must meet together and compose their differences on the basis of Palestinian independence”.
In November 1938, as World War II was looming, Gandhi wrote in Harijan on the revived bid for a Jewish homeland in Palestine: “The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun…They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs.” And then, unforgettably, in the same journal on November 26,1938 : “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.”
‘Crime against humanity’ is no ordinary chastisement. And it was, essentially, a chastisement of the British, who were violating their promises to the Arabs and even the qualifications under the Balfour Declaration for the rights of the non-Jewish people of Palestine.
In 1947, Britain, the mandatory power, faced with Zionist terrorism, referred the “Palestine question” to the United Nations General Assembly. The assembly discussed it at a special session in May 1947. And what did freshly independent India do? It acted with both balance and principle. No one really believed it was right for the Jews from all over the world to settle in Palestine but the horrors of World War II stilled misgivings.
Asaf Ali, one of India’s prominent nationalist leaders, was president of the assembly. He pressed that the Arab Higher Committee and Jewish Agency should be heard before any decision was taken – and they were. That was a recognition of the right of people affected, both Jews and Arabs.
India supported a bi-national state in Palestine. This was far-sighted. At that time, before the decolonisation surge, there were very few Asian-African nations in the UN. Western and Latin American countries dominated the Assembly. Israel lobbied furiously and partition was approved by one vote. After that resolution, before the UN could consider any further action, there was violence by Zionist radicals. And, as surely as night follows day, there was a retaliatory invasion by four neighbouring Arab countries. Eminent Jewish intellectuals who strove hard for friendly relations with Arabs were silenced. Early in 1948, the UN mediated armistices between Israel and the four countries, with one big gain for Israel: Israel was admitted to the United Nations in 1949.
India accepted the reality and Israel established a consulate in Bombay though diplomatic relations were not then established.
India has consistently recognised the facts on the ground: Support for Arabs, but not expulsion of Jews. And, later, after Israel’s occupation of the rest of Palestine, it has demanded Israeli withdrawal.
This extended narrative is necessary to see India’s consistent fair-mindedness which was impartial, not neutral and deeply valuational. And rigorously twinned to UN resolutions.
What Modi left out
To fast forward to recent times.
Not long before his government’s defeat in national elections, Prime Minister Vajpayee said, in 2003, that India had consistently called for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in West Asia based on the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and the “land for peace” formula. During a visit that year by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to New Delhi, he was told by Prime Minister Vajpayee that there had been no change in India’s position seeking a “quick Israeli withdrawal” from Palestinian cities and other “occupied” territories.
Israel’s subsequent actions in Gaza, described as ‘war crimes’ , drew the world’s ire and in August 2014, weeks after Prime Minister Modi’s installation, India joined member-states in the UNO to denounce it.
But now, in this summer of 2017, all that has changed.
I would not say that just because no Prime Minister of India has gone to Israel, no Indian Prime Minister ever should; no. I would not raise objections to Prime Minister Modi’s visit per se. But what I find surprising, even shocking, is that the visit should have taken place as if the Arabs do not exist, the Palestine state is a myth and that the only reality of that Holy Land is Israel, Israel, and more Israel. In the statements issued after the Modi-Netanyahu talks, there is not one reference to UN Resolutions on Palestine, not one mention of the ‘two-state’ solution, or even to the value of talks. By obscuring Palestine in the proceedings, India has relinquished its opportunity to assist Israel and Palestine find a solution. It has come down shamelessly on the side of might is right.
No foreign office can fail to give a Prime Minister contemplating such a visit a brief on the pros and cons of it and we can be sure our MEA did that, for Prime Minister Modi. We can be sure of the pros that were given to him (reading his mind). But we may never know though whether the cons, if any were given, included giving him memory capsules about Montagu’s historic demurring which built safeguards into the Balfour Declaration, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, the Zionist bombing of King David Hotel in Palestine in which the UN envoy Count Bernadotte was killed, Nehru’s and his successor Shastri’s unqualified support to the Palestinian cause without diluting Israel’s identity , the war of 1967 after which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi expressed India’s “total sympathies” with Palestine, the war of 1973 and then, more recently, the outrageous attacks on Gaza in which, as Kamal Mitra Chenoy has recently reminded us, 2200 Palestinians were killed, including as many as 550 children? We will never know, not with the exemptions that are enshrined in the RTI Act.
‘A second Balfour Declaration without the safeguards’
The visit has announced a new ‘strategic partnership’. This is in a sense a formalising in name of what is a hard fact: India is the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment and Israel is, after Russia, the second largest defence supplier to India. But it is also more, much more. It is a second Balfour Declaration equivalent without the safeguards, to the effect that if Israel is a fact, so is its hegemony in the region, so is the Palestine occupation. The strategic partnership is a new axis telling the world that India and Israel shared an interest ,not in the realms of agriculture and medicine, but in armed action against un-named but unmistakable enemies. The most important ‘visual’ now, post the visit, of the India – Israel love fest is the decision to jointly manufacture missiles in India.
This strategic nature of the partnership goes beyond techno-economic-military ties. It is now wholly political, ideological. India has given legitimacy now to occupation and brutal suppression. That a country may start a pre-emptive war to avert a perceived threat, that it may retain the fruits of its aggression, that it may dictate terms of negotiation without vacating the areas occupied by it, that it may violate international law in occupied territories with impunity, are untenable postulates in civilised international relations. India had a clear stand on this. Now that stand has been blown away. Apart from grave consequences endangering the safety of Indian residents in the Middle East and aggravating tensions in India, this amounts to a repudiation of the cardinal tenets of India’s foreign policy.
Any government may repudiate its predecessor’s policies. But Palestine has not been about policy as much as principle. The history of principles is not our present government’s favourite subject of study. It is intent on re-writing history. Fortunately, there are others who remember what happened and will not let it be forgotten.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former governor of West Bengal, also served as India’s ambassador to South Africa.