India’s delicate Middle East foreign policy balancing act

India is taking an independent approach to its relations with Mideast countries.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves upon his arrival to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not pictured) in Ramallah, in the West Bank February 10, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves upon his arrival to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not pictured) in Ramallah, in the West Bank February 10, 2018.
Since India forged formal diplomatic ties with Israel 25 years ago, relations have rapidly improved. Today, India is the largest foreign purchaser of Israeli arms, with the countries having last year signed military agreements worth $2.6 billion. This lies in stark contrast to the traditional pro-Palestinian position that was a hallmark of Indian foreign policy since Israel's establishment in 1948. The apparent paradox is reconciled by what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi refers to as "de-hyphenation," a policy of basing bilateral relationships on their own merits and viewing them as independent of one another.
Modi’s visit to Ramallah in early February marked the first time an Indian leader had traveled to the Palestinian territories. New Delhi described the trip as “truly historic," during which cooperation agreements worth $50 million were signed, thereby reinforcing India's commitment to the Palestinian cause. Notably, it came just one month after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent five days in India, which, in turn, followed Modi's own trip to Israel in June 2017, the first-ever visit by an Indian premier to the Jewish state .
While Modi has attempted to display balance, many analysts view a clear shift towards Israel. Ananb Singh, a leader of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in India expressed his disappointment to The Media Line at the improving relations, which marks "a shift from the long tradition of supporting the resistance.” He also believes that Modi's trip to Ramallah was "just a show and further proof of the steady silence of India regarding Israel’s illegal acts.”
Aparna Pande, Director of the India Initiative, agrees that “India has been a champion of the Palestinian cause from the beginning, however, it is a relationship that is primarily an emotional and historical one.” Now, he explained to The Media Line, "India must try to balance its policies with countries that don’t get along.”
To this end, it appears clear that Modi's separate visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories was meant to underscore his desire not to have one relationship effect the other.
PM Netanyahu Receives Surprise Welcome in Delhi by Indian PM Modi (YouTube/IsraeliPM)
Indeed, India is increasingly being viewed as a neutral party by Middle East nations. This has allowed New Delhi to cultivate close ties with Israel, Iran's arch-foe, with which India nevertheless maintains good relations too. Tehran, in turn, is Saudis Arabia's nemesis, but this has not precluded the development of close partnerships between India and Riyadh.
Modi was elected in May 2014 after campaigning on a hardline nationalistic platform that resonated with his Hindu base. According to Dr. Shalom Wald, a Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, this allowed him immediately to "break the taboo that an Indian prime minister cannot be warm with Israel,” a situation he attributed to “an old Indian tradition” of supporting the Palestinian cause.  “Palestine was incredibly popular in Indian domestic policy," Dr. Shalom continued, due in large part to the 200 million-strong Muslims living in the country whom politicians have traditionally relied on in order to be voted into office. However, now that the ruling party’s base has changed, New Delhi is freer to pursue an open and deepening relationship with Israel.
In this respect, bilateral trade between the nations grew from $200 million in 1992 to $4.52 billion in 2014 (excluding military deals). Moreover, Pande told The Media Line that “the relationship with Israel is multi-faceted, also encompassing security and agriculture interests.” This is in stark contrast to New Delhi's ties to Ramallah, which according to Dr. Wald "provides India with nothing and so New Delhi gives only a few million dollars of aid each year.”
Israel is liable to remain an attractive partner for India moving forward as Modi seeks to strengthen the country's military and, among other things, become a permanent member on the United Nations Security Council. But economics will likely remain the driving force for the foreseeable future as New Delhi aims to transform itself into an industrial power.
Modi has thus sought to build stronger economic relations not only with the Jewish state but also with Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. His trip through the region in February was described by political analyst Dr. N. Janardhan as “a charm offensive.” Moreover, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani just concluded a visit to New Delhi, where both governments signed nine economic pacts.
But Pande is unsure how long India's policy of de-hyphenation can continue to be successful. “India is desperately trying to balance its relationship but decisions at the UN Security Council and General Assembly will need to be made," she explained. Dr. Wald is nevertheless confident that the relationship with Israel will continue to flourish, “as India doesn’t make too many rash decisions it keeps calm and remains quiet on issues.” For this reason, he concluded, even if Modi in the future votes against Israel at the UN for domestic reasons, Jerusalem will continue to seek New Dehli’s growing friendship.
Benji Flacks is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program