The opening act in stand-up comedy or music concerts is arguably the hardest as it involves warming up a “cold” audience. To some degree, President Pranab Mukherjee faced this thankless task by becoming the first Indian president to visit Israel. Traditionally, presidential visits don’t attract much attention. But the six-day tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel is seen as a prelude to the much-anticipated Narendra Modi visit to Tel Aviv. How can we interpret his visit in the broader context of Modi’s policy?
The contours of the Modi government’s policy towards West Asia are still undefined. Because Modi has never explicitly articulated any grand strategy towards the region, others have ventured into the vacuum. Building on sporadic glimpses like Modi’s much publicised meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu at the UNGA in September 2014, India’s abstention on a UNHRC resolution that condemned Israel, and the announcement of a visit to Israel, some have argued India had broken with the traditional hyphenation of Israel and Palestine. While appealing to certain audiences in India, the narrative of a paradigmatic shift in India’s position is complicated by empirical realities.
In fact, the effective de-hyphenation happened in January 1992. In 1950, India recognised Israel and initiated discussions towards the exchange of embassies while refusing to recognise the All Palestine Government. However, India indefinitely deferred formal diplomatic ties following Israel’s participation in the operation to regain control of the Suez Canal in 1956. Hyphenation only began when New Delhi recognised the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1974 and, thereafter, conditioned rapprochement with Israel on progress in the Israel-Palestine dispute. It’s in the context of the renascent peace process in the early 1990s that India established diplomatic relations with Israel.
Since then, India moved to a policy of engagement of both. Defence and economic relations between India and Israel have thrived despite India’s enduring support to Palestine. While Israel became India’s second-largest arms supplier, Delhi continued to be one of the most important aid donors to the Palestinian Authority. Modi also met with Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the UNGA in September 2015. During his visit, Mukherjee confirmed the de-hyphenation process by restating that India’s relations with Israel were “independent” of its ties with Palestine.
The Mukherjee visit could be interpreted as an additional guarantee from Modi’s government that India will stay the course. Anticipating criticisms of his upcoming visit, Modi has refrained from giving a specific timetable. He also surprised many by making his first West Asian stopover in the UAE. While declaring explicit designs in other regional contexts (“Act East”), the government has seemingly opted for pragmatic ambivalence on West Asia.
Yet, deliberate ambivalence can lead to misperceptions. Mukherjee went beyond symbolical gestures of support to the Palestinian cause. Prior to the visit, he referred to Gandhi’s 1938 statement about Palestine belonging to the Arabs. He also specified “East Jerusalem” was to be the capital of an independent Palestine. Some Israeli media finally highlighted the president failed to address terrorism in his public addresses in Ramallah. The presidential visit revealed varying domestic interpretations of India’s position.
Given the stakes, it’s unlikely these declarations will decisively affect Modi’s visit.
But it’s clear that the Indian government needs to be upfront about its policy. Partly articulated positions create a vacuum of interpretation. If the current government is sincere about de-hyphenation, it should clearly spell out its ambition to reinforce cooperation with Israel while also actively supporting an independent Palestinian state. Some opening acts leave lasting impressions and Mukherjee’s performance could be more influential than initially expected.