NEW DELHI/RAMALLAH: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the de-facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah this week is a test for India’s balancing act of relations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) government.
Modi’s visit, scheduled for Saturday, is the first-ever by an Indian prime minister despite India extending moral and material support to the Palestinians for more than seven decades across various governments.
According to observers in the region, Modi’s carefully calibrated trip to the West Bank from Jordan is a signal to the PA and Arab countries – along with Israel – that India remains committed to its historical support for Palestinian statehood.
“India and Palestine have a long history, and this government is no exception,” Majdi al-Khalidi, a senior diplomatic advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told dpa.
No matter how strong India-Israel relations become, there is “no change” to India’s relations with the Palestinians, al-Khalidi said.
India opposed the establishment of Israel in 1947, and India’s close relations with several Arab nations and its Muslim population – the second largest in the world – long made the government wary of openly acknowledging relations with the Jewish state.
After decades of ostensibly adopting a pro-Arab, anti-normalization policy, New Delhi formally established relations with Israel in 1992.
Since then, Modi has publicly embraced Netanyahu with an unprecedented warmness, leaving some observers to state that Modi is distancing India from the Palestinian cause. On his visit to Israel in July, the premier gave Netanyahu his signature bear hug, and the two strolled barefoot along a beach.
India’s attempt to openly build its relationship with Israel while maintaining support for Palestinian statehood aspirations is a fine balancing act, West Asia expert PR Kumaraswamy told dpa.
Modi’s plans to lay a wreath at the tomb of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, considered a terrorist by many Israelis, is already raising eyebrows in Israel.
“While it is keen to further bilateral relations with Palestine, India is no longer willing to view its Israel policy through the traditional Palestinian prism,” Kumaraswamy said.
According to Lior Weintraub, a former diplomat at Israel’s embassy in India, Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ushered in a new era of Israel-India relations.
“We see that the Indian government, and especially the BJP, took a strategic decision to promote the relationship with Israel,” Weintraub said.
Israel, a high-tech and regional powerhouse, has more to offer New Delhi than Ramallah, whose small economy has been ravaged by conflict and Israeli military control.
India-Israel trade totalled 5 billion dollars in 2016-2017, according to the Indian External Affairs Ministry, and Israel is the main exporter of defence goods to New Delhi.
Trade with the Palestinian Territories is estimated at 30 million dollars, according to the ministry.
Still, India’s traditional sympathy toward the Palestinian cause is visible.
“India is a country that was under occupation, and it knows what that means,” Mazen Shamiyah, the PA’s assistant minister for Africa, Asia, and Australian affairs, told dpa. “It does not accept Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”
India recently sided with Israel in the UN General Assembly, voting with a majority of nations to reject the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Modi, who is scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, will have to juggle support for Palestinian statehood aspirations while making sure not to upset the Israelis.
According to al-Khalidi, the diplomatic adviser to Abbas, Modi is doing just that.
“He is able to do many things at the same time,” al-Khalidi said. “He is able to create a balanced relationship.”