Sunday, Feb 25, 2018 | Last Update : 11:20 AM IST

Modi’s Palestine visit: Mideast balancing act

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Feb 13, 2018, 5:40 am IST
Updated : Feb 13, 2018, 6:54 am IST

Modi promised Palestinians generous financial and technological assistance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: @PMO/Twitter)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: @PMO/Twitter)

It was a state visit to a non-state. “We have de-hyphenated our relations with Palestine and Israel and now we see them both as mutually independent and exclusive and as part of this policy the Prime Minister is undertaking this visit,” boasted an external affairs ministry joint secretary. But the linkage and the hyphen seemed very strong indeed as Israeli Air Force helicopters escorted the Royal Jordanian Army helicopter in which Narendra Modi travelled to Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank whose entrance, exit, borders and airspace are all strictly controlled by Israel.

No doubt Mr Modi meant well. Some reports claim he said India hoped for “an early realisation of a sovereign and independent state of Palestine”. Whether he did or not, he didn’t want millions of dispossessed Palestinians to feel his heady “bromance” with Benjamin Netanyahu leaves them forever stateless in a no-man’s-land. Hence the balancing act of this visit. The surreptitious pussyfooting of all those years going back to the 1962 Himalayan war when India felt guilty about its Israeli lover is over. India and Israel are now proud strategic partners, ties extending to intelligence- sharing on terrorism and joint military training. As the largest buyer of Israeli weapons, India actually helps Israel maintain its stranglehold on the conquered West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights. Indo-Israeli military business was worth around $9 billion between 1999 and 2009.

Unlike his predecessors, Mr Modi doesn’t have to be secretive. If Israeli claims regarding a survey by an unnamed international market research company are to be believed, Zionism is more popular in India than in the United States. The study claims 58 per cent of Indian respondents are sympathetic to the Jewish state, against only 56 per cent of Americans.

But let us not pretend the Israelis had nothing to do with this first visit to Palestine by an Indian Prime Minister. No doubt under official guidance, some reporters made much of the fact that Mr Modi travelled from Jordan and not Israel, as Pranab Mukherjee had done. That eyewash will convince no one who knows the situation. Mindful of its artificial identity and precariously poised monarchy, the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan is Israel’s closest friend in West Asia. The late King Hussein’s limousine could be seen waiting at the Allenby Bridge early every morning even during the Six-Day War for the Jerusalem Post newspaper, which he obviously regarded as more reliable than any Arab publication. The half-English, British-trained King Abdullah II, whom the media showed in the obligatory bear hug with Mr Modi, was Mr Netanyahu’s proxy on this occasion.

That wouldn’t have mattered if the visit meant a genuine step towards sovereign independence. Palestine’s present status can be compared to the 15 republics of the old Soviet Union (several of which were United Nations members) or — more appositely — apartheid South Africa’s Bantustans, four of which were declared “independent” although recognised only by Pretoria. For that matter, pre-1947 India was a founding member of the League of Nations and the United Nations, declared war and made peace, but all on London’s orders. The red carpet reception for Mr Modi, the guard of honour and troop inspection could be compared to the Maharaja of Bikaner and Lord Sinha attending the 1919-20 Versailles Peace Conference. Allowing Mahmoud Abbas the fripperies of a head of state receiving a visiting foreign head of government showed Mr Netanyahu understands the visitor’s psychology.

Mr Modi proudly boasts he calls his “friend” Mr Netanyahu by his nickname “Bibi”.  Despite contradictory statements, Israel hopes to sell India 8,000 Spike anti-tank missiles for $500 million. “Following talks I have held with my friend, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” Mr Netanyahu declared when visiting India last month, “the Indian government has informed us it is putting the Spike deal back on track. This is very important and there will be many more deals.” The two men seem made for each other. But does this mean Israel will stop illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, relax the squeeze on Gaza, return the Golan Heights or recognise Palestine’s independence?

Mr Modi would deserve the grateful thanks of six million West Bank inhabitants if he could persuade his “friend” to do so. But then, he may not even be aware of the historical background and rationale for the Israeli recalcitrance. Shimon Peres, Israel’s former Prime Minister and President, regarded as a dove in a cast of hawks, who died in 2016, explained the Zionist stand in his books. First, he denied the existence of a separate Palestinian nation, claiming Palestinians were only those Arabs who happened to be in the West Bank or Gaza but were indistinguishable from other Arabs throughout West Asia. Second, Peres held that the old Mandate for Palestine carved out of the former Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War could hold only two independent states — Israel and Jordan — which already exist. There is no room for a third.

Beyond that is the suspicion of the Zionist dream of Eretz Yisrael, Land of Israel, stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates. Mr Netanyahu has not said or done anything to dispel such fears.

Mr Modi promised Palestinians generous financial and technological assistance. But that was also part of Peres’ benevolence for a conquered land and its people. Choosing his words with care, Mr Abbas described Mr Modi’s visit as “significant”. It will deserve a higher adjective only if future events show the Prime Minister persuaded his real host in Jerusalem who oversaw all arrangements to disgorge the fruits of war and cease to be the only country in the world to retain conquered territory. Then only might the visit be termed historic.

Tags: narendra modi, benjamin netanyahu, united nations, mahmoud abbas