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Modi abandons India’s nuanced Middle East policy approach, offers solid support to Israel over Hamas attack

Arab nations have, if anything, been even stronger than India in backing Israel; Saudi Arabia has denounced the Hamas attack as a flagrant violation of international norms, Egypt has condemned it as a heinous act of terrorism, Jordan has called it a cowardly act of aggression, the UAE has condemned the provocative attack

Paran Balakrishnan Published 09.10.23, 10:48 AM
Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi File

Prime Minister Narendra Modi just threw over 50 years of cautious Middle East diplomatic manoeuvring out of the window. Barely hours after Hamas launched its lighting weekend attack on Israel, Modi took to social media to make it strikingly clear which side India was on, abandoning any pretense of impartiality.

“We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour,” Modi said on X, branding the action by Hamas “terrorist attacks.” Modi didn’t ask the Ministry of External Affairs to issue a statement, as might normally have been done. Instead, he delivered instant online diplomacy, saying, “our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families.”

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Of course, anyone who recalls the scenes of Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frolicking barefoot and paddling in the water at Israel’s Olga Beach in 2017 won’t be terribly surprised by the fact that the Indian leader has been so unequivocal in backing Israel, though the U-turn would have shocked India’s earlier diplomats and politicians. And while India has never officially called the Palestinians “terrorists” as a collective term, it has in the past condemned specific acts of violence committed by some Palestinian groups or individuals against Israel.

India’s not out on a limb in taking Israel’s side. Arab nations have, if anything, been even stronger than India in backing Israel. And of course, the West, as usual, has lined up solidly behind Israel. Saudi Arabia has denounced the Hamas attack as a “flagrant violation of international norms, Egypt has condemned it as a "heinous act of terrorism,” Jordan has called it a “cowardly act of aggression," the UAE has condemned the “provocative attack.”

India didn’t always support Israel. We opposed Israel’s creation and backed rights of Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (we didn’t establish full diplomatic ties until 1992). India was firmly on Egypt’s side during the 1956 Suez Crisis. During the 1967 Six-Day War, India voiced its “deep concern” over the hostilities and supported Palestinians’ “legitimate rights.” In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, India deplored the violence and denounced Israel’s “expansionary policies.” Then, in the 2006 Lebanon War, India urged Israel to stop “its disproportionate use of force.” In the 2014 Gaza War, India called for talks between Israel and Palestine based on a two-state solution and backed a UN motion to probe Israel’s actions in Gaza.

While we’ve now manifestly thrown in our lot with Israel this isn’t a sudden move. We’ve been moving closer to Israel for decades now, a shift that accelerated after 2014 when Modi came to power.

The BJP has always long argued that India and Israel are natural allies. By contrast, in earlier decades non-BJP governments have argued that India had to side with Islamic nations because of its own Muslim population. It should also be mentioned that both India and Israel have a feeling that they’re allies who live in a rough neighbourhood surrounded by potential enemies.

Thanking India for its condemnation of the Hamas’ assault, Naor Gilon, Israel’s ambassador, said India’s stand came from “the position of a country which knows terrorism, a point of knowledge and not of ignorance.”

Even before India established formal ties, though, we cooperated with Israel in areas from defence to intelligence and agriculture to science. Israel supplied India with arms, ammunition and intelligence during the India-Pakistan wars of 1971 and 1999. We’re easily among the biggest purchaser of Israeli arms and armaments.

The figures vary from one year to another but Israel was India’s largest arms supplier in 2017 and has been amongst the top exporters since then. For instance, we’ve leased four Israel-made Heron Mark-2 UAVs that are now patrolling our borders – these UAVs can also carry weapons if necessary. Other Israeli equipment used to check infiltration includes handheld thermal imaging devices and night vision equipment. Also, an Israeli company, Elbit Systems, has tied up with Pune-based Bharat Forge to make artillery guns, guided munitions and mortar systems. India and Israel also developed the Barak-8 air and missile defence system. Don’t forget, too, while New Delhi has always strongly denied the reports, India is thought to have bought the Pegasus spy software from Israel.

India’s global diplomatic positions have shifted considerably in recent years, largely because our key enemies we now believe are not just Pakistan but also the giant and economically powerful China with which we share a 3.000-km border. So, we’re edging away from the embrace of the Russian bear – though we still need Russia’s defence equipment like the SS-40s as well as replacement parts for our military hardware. Instead, we’re sailing with the Quad, the loose coalition between India, the US, Japan and Australia.

The world has also changed enormously in the last 25 years. The Palestinians may have a just cause but they have been abandoned by most of the Arab World for one reason or another. But India’s standing alongside the key Arab countries is out of step with other key nations in the Global South. Indonesia, for instance, said it, “urges the immediate end of violence to avoid further human casualties.” And China demanded an, “immediate end to hostilities to protect civilians and avoid further deterioration of the situation.”

What happens next? Netanyahu has declared a state of war – for the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. He’s vowed to raze Gaza which has a population of 2 million. And the Israelis will be asking sharp questions about how Hamas missiles and drones got past Israel’s Iron Dome system that was said to be impenetrable. Hamas is usually thought to be backed by Iran and also Turkey and even Qatar.

US President Joe Biden was hoping in recent months that he might be able to bring a degree of peace to the Middle East that might also reduce oil prices with the 2024 election looming. Now it looks as if the Middle East is about to enter a new era of turmoil that could drive up oil costs – not such good news for Modi as he also faces an election.

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