Just a little over two months ago, ambassadors representing Arab countries gathered at the ministry of external affairs funded think-tank, the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) in Delhi’s Sapru House in what is an annual ritual — to observe the United Nations mandated International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on November 29.

Among them was the Palestinian ambassador to India, Adnan Abu Alhaijaa, who noted that India had “remained steadfast with the Palestinian cause since its inception” and voicing hope and belief that the “Indian leadership will keep guiding and supporting us”.

New equations

The Palestinian envoy’s words were of particular import given that India, in a major foreign policy shift, under the present government, has chosen to “de-hyphenate” its relationship with Israel and Palestine. Therefore, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not visit Palestine along with Israel as has been the norm for top level visitors from India, when he made his historic visit to Israel — the first ever by an Indian PM — in July last year.

Rather, as part of this de-hyphenation, PM Modi will be in Ramallah in the West Bank to meet Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in what is being described as a stand-alone visit and the first one by an Indian PM to Palestine. While New Delhi has been at pains to state that it has not abandoned the Palestinian cause, President Abbas and his entire cabinet will undoubtedly be looking for an assurance yet again from PM Modi on New Delhi’s continuing support for Palestine post the de-hyphenation.

While successive governments in New Delhi have walked the diplomatic tight-rope in maintaining ties with both Israel and Palestine ever since formal ties were established with Jerusalem in 1992, the balancing act for New Delhi has become trickier in the wake of this de-hyphenation.

In making the visit to Palestine, the Modi government would be hoping to signal to Palestine and the world at large, particularly the Arab world, that New Delhi remains unwavering in its support for the Palestinian cause, notwithstanding its closer clinch with Israel.

The enunciation of its support for the people of Palestine has become all the more important given the flourishing India-Israel ties under the Modi government.

For all its declarations of unwavering support for the Palestinian cause, New Delhi chose to abstain on UN resolutions in 2015 and 2016 that were critical of Israel for its bombardment on the Gaza strip.

Also, India’s rather subdued response to US President Donald Trump’s controversial announcement in December last year recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel wherein it said: “India’s position on Palestine is independent and consistent. It is shaped by our views and interests, and not determined by any third country,” has raised many eyebrows in Palestine and the Arab world.

However, New Delhi made up for its tepid remarks by voting in favour of a resolution against President Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In a hugely symbolic gesture of solidarity with the Palestinian cause, PM Modi will also be visiting the Yasser Arafat museum in Ramallah to pay tribute to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader. Arafat, a frequent visitor to India, had enjoyed a close friendship with Indira Gandhi and in 1975, India became the first non-Arab country to grant full diplomatic status to the PLO representative in New Delhi.

Diplomatic ties

While New Delhi’s decision to not look at ties with Israel and Palestine through the other’s prism may be driven by pragmatism, it has given Palestinian leaders cause for anxiety, regardless of the broad-based bilateral engagement and huge budgetary and monetary support India has been providing. It amounted to $10 million by August 2017 and includes a swathe of “nation building and capacity building projects”.

The PM’s visit, therefore, will be seeking to put the fears of the Palestinian leadership as well as those of the Arab world at rest particularly given the Modi-Netanyahu tango. Equally importantly, New Delhi will be seeking to burnishing its credentials in the Arab world where India has huge stakes.

India has a huge diaspora living in West Asia — it’s grown from six million four years ago to nine million at current count — that sends valuable remittances of $35 billion annually. The region also meets 50 per cent of India’s oil needs and 60-65 per cent of its energy requirements. The Gulf is also the largest regional trading bloc for India accounting for $110 billion of trade.

Indeed, indicative of the region’s importance for India is the fact that PM Modi will also be visiting UAE and Oman, the latter for the first time as PM, during his West Asia swing that first takes him to Palestine on February 10.

The balancing act may have become tougher. But pragmatism has clearly had the last word amidst the changing geo-political landcape.

The writer is a senior journalist