PM Modi’s Palestine Tour a ‘Game-Changer’ — But Not a Positive One
In 1998, RL Rife of the US Army War College wrote a paper titled ‘Defense is from Mars, State is from Venus’. His official position kept him from stating the obvious, but read between the lines and you will arrive at the conclusion that while ‘foreign policy’ is mostly about activity passed off as achievement, defence means having to deliver tangible results.
Foreign policy has been prized, while defence has been ignored under this government, as is perhaps symptomatic of its belief that governance is all about advertisement in lieu of zero delivery. High volume, zero delivery visits have become the norm, with fawning media persons hailing as ‘game-changers’ the Bollywood roadshows that are the PM’s foreign trips – despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Sadly, while what is touted as ‘diplomacy’ in this country sadly delivers anything other than ‘narratives’, it has considerable ability to inflict damage.
The Prime Minister's scheduled trip to Palestine on 10 February, is exactly one of those trips that cause damage and yield no results, even by the low delivery standards of the current dispensation.
Diplomatic Implications of Modi’s Visit
There are two ways of looking at the Palestine visit in the diplomatic sense – the first, that it is a balancing act between Israel and Palestine carried out for domestic political consumption in India. The second is that this is being done for the purpose of India’s global ambitions, specifically a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) permanent seat, and that such moves will yield a favourable climate among the 50-odd Muslim countries.
Obviously, I have chosen to ignore the third argument — which is the ‘principles’ and ‘morality’ argument, because anyone formulating foreign policy based on this should be laughed out of office for being incurably naive.
Loopholes in India’s Diplomatic Signaling
The problem is, neither of these reasons hold up to scrutiny. To believe that Indian Muslims will vote based on a ‘pro-Palestine’ position for the BJP, despite having abysmal representation in BJP ministries and being virtually non-existent among BJP legislators at the state or national level, stretches both logic and credulity to extremes.
The second touted reason of drumming up support for the UNSC seat is against any factual correlation or causation, since India's ‘more Arab than the Arabs’ stance from the 1940s to the 1990s yielded no increase or decrease in support. In fact, there is much to be said for the fact that open ‘Muslim opposition’ to India has subsided since India started growing closer to Israel in the 1990s, with only Turkey opposing us vehemently, and Indonesia doing so much more softly.
Indeed, the only thing that will ensure India’s UNSC seat is a powerful economy – not support for a lost cause that even Arabs have no time for, while treating their own Palestinian émigrés poorly and forming ‘secret alliances with Israel against Iran’.
The clearest example of this is Saudi Arabia's refusal to take up its Security Council seat in October 2013, to protest the West's indifference to Syria, and conciliatory moves towards Iran — something Saudi Arabia never did for Palestine.
Ignorance & ‘Hot Air’
So, given that the ‘Muslim vote’ and ‘UNSC seat’ arguments simply don’t hold up to scrutiny, what is left?
The residual argument is one of economic utility. Depending on fossil fuel prices, our trade with the Muslim world fluctuates between $150 to 200 billion per annum plus remittances home, while that with Israel stands between $4 to 6 billion. The issue is that ever since the 1990s, this is no longer a binary and one does not have to choose between Israel and the Arab world anymore.
Indeed, no one is foolish enough to argue that being sympathetic to Palestine will bring any better trade or remittance opportunities with the Arab world. The Arab world is critical for Indian energy security, but Israel is critical for India’s physical, water and food security.
To be fair, India’s economy simply isn’t growing the way it should on the demand side and there are now many diversified suppliers available – since the decoupling of gas and oil prices, fracking and the end of India’s nuclear isolation. At any rate, a fossil fuel embargo on India was never on the cards.
Similarly, India-Israel ties also remain stagnant, given the hard structural limitations of India’s land laws, ecology, and the power generation situation.
‘Hallmark’ of Indian Policy
Clearly then, the economic and diplomatic benefits of engaging with Palestine are zero. On the other hand, the negative aspects are significant from a normative point of view.
The officials of the Palestinian National Authority do to Israel what the Pakistanis do to us: 'incite violence', then condemn it in English, while praising and encouraging it in Arabic.
To his credit, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has reduced this quite significantly, the past ‘master of this game’ being Yasser Arafat, a man at whose grave, Prime Minister Modi will be paying his respects.
Now consider this — how would an Indian react to a US or Chinese President visiting the grave of Hafiz Saeed? To normalise ‘proxy terrorism’ like this, while making loud noises on the ‘indivisibility of terror’ comes off as cluelessness on India’s part. To do so on account of a ‘country’ that has no political, diplomatic or economic salience seems “...worse than a crime... it’s a blunder”, to quote the great Frenchman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.
But that, of course, is the hallmark of Indian policy — incapable of meaningfully processing change and being immune to feedback. In the final analysis, all this visit will do, is weaken our diplomatic position on the indivisibility of terror for zero gains, and the 'media’ will, this time at least accurately, label it a ‘game-changer’ — just not in the positive sense.
(Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at The Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies and tweets at @iyervval. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)