By Talmiz Ahmad
17 May 2017
The streets of Delhi were festooned with the flags of Palestine as India welcomed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on his fifth visit to India since 2005. Abbas has the unique distinction of presiding over a “state” that is recognized by 136 of the UN’s 193 members, but whose territory is under Israeli occupation. Palestinians’ struggle for full-fledged statehood is a cause dear to most states of the world and millions of people globally.
India has the proud record of supporting the Palestinian cause from the time it itself became a free nation. India was the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” A PLO office was set up in the Indian capital in 1975, and full diplomatic ties were established in 1980.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi continued this tradition when he expressed unswerving support for the realization of a “sovereign, independent, united and viable” state of Palestine, living in peace with neighbouring Israel, a reiteration of India’s support for a “two-state” solution.
This is a daunting challenge for the Palestinian cause and the world at large. This issue has been before the UN since 1947, has been at the centre of three major wars, has made millions of people homeless, and has engulfed the Israeli people in a miasma of insecurity that has led them to condone some of the most heinous atrocities perpetrated by their armed forces.
From time to time, there have been hopes of peace, most powerfully just after the Cold War when both the Israeli and Palestinian sides accepted the Oslo peace process, which recognized the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” But this effort crashed when Israel’s prime minister leading the process, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated, in November 1995, by an Israeli extremist.
After that, right-wing governments have mostly been in power in Israel, often committed to extremist ideologies and more comfortable with using overwhelming force to subdue Palestinian aspirations.
Before reaching India, President Abbas engaged in some high-level diplomatic undertakings to revive the moribund peace process. Perhaps encouraged by the thought that the US has a new president with an unorthodox approach to foreign relations, Abbas first made a forceful case for Palestinian statehood before Trump in early May.
The US president exuded positive body language and committed himself to settling the Palestinian issue, but he was short on detail. He made no mention of a Palestinian state or of the two-state solution, nor did he call upon Israel to desist from further expansion of its settlements in the West Bank.
After that visit, Abbas met the German president in Ramallah and then went to Moscow, where he received strong support. Abbas said: “It is impossible to solve the Palestinian issue without Russia’s meaningful participation in the peace process.” Putin backs the two-state solution: “The peaceful coexistence of the two states — Palestine and Israel — is an indispensable condition to ensure genuine security and stability in this region.”
In Delhi, in an obvious tribute to India’s diplomatic stature, Abbas insisted on an Indian role in “the upcoming peace efforts.” Abbas’ remarks, as those of Prime Minister Modi expressing fulsome support for an independent state of Palestine, affirm that India has successfully de-hyphenated its ties with Israel and Palestine.
Contrary to the apprehensions of many Middle East watchers, even as India has expanded its ties with Israel in the fields of defence and technology, it has steadfastly backed the Palestine cause, and specifically the two-state solution, and provided massive development assistance to the Palestine Authority.
The Palestine issue is thus an important challenge for Delhi: India has the closest of relations with both Israel and Palestine, while having an abiding interest in Middle Eastern stability.
The Indian initiative to promote the revival of the peace process can be founded on the Arab Peace Initiative that was first proposed by the late King Abdullah in 2002 and accepted as an “Arab” plan that same year. It calls for the Israeli vacation of territories occupied in 1967, with some adjustments, and a just settlement of the refugee question, in return for full political and economic ties with its Arab neighbours.
Several moderate Israeli and Western leaders agree that this proposal can be the basis for lasting peace in the region. Even the generally obdurate Hamas, which has traditionally questioned Israel’s right to exist, has seen the need for some moderation in its stance: It has recently amended its charter to accept a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders.
While there is still some confusion in Hamas ranks about what is on offer, there is no doubt that its new leadership recognizes the need for compromise on its entrenched positions so that Arabs and Israelis can live side by side peacefully.
An Indian initiative to pursue this plan in a well thought-out diplomatic initiative with the Israeli leaders when Modi engages with them in July would be the best outcome of his robust engagement with the Middle East in his three-years as India’s prime minister.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.