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Conflict, Religion and Foreign Policy: Invoking India-Israel Diplomatic Relationship
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“Foreign Policy is an explicitly amoral enterprise”.

-Samantha Power

It is not an unknown fact that any nation across the globe cannot survive in isolation. Rather, states are in constant interaction with other national-states, international organizations, or non-governmental organizations. The purpose behind this inter-connectedness or reliance is quite obvious that no nation can claim itself to be self-sufficient with regard to various economic, strategic, and financial resources. In order to manage this network it becomes quite imperative for any nation to evolve and develop its own foreign policy.

Foreign policy consistently involves decision-making by states which is brought into action through assessment of the international and domestic political environment, which is followed by goal setting, determination of policy options, formal decision making action, and implementation of chosen policy option. These are the basic contours of a foreign policy which is collectively also addressed as ‘stages in decision-making’.

No study of foreign policy or international relation is complete without due consideration to ‘conflict’. The behavior of states with regard to their foreign policy or international affairs in contemporary world is significantly affected by conflict. The statement of Michael Don Ward is a testimony to this fact; conflict plays a vital role in construction as well as deciphering of foreign policy, as he quotes that,

“Given the salience (that is, deadliness) of international (military) conflict, it is understandable that post-World War II research on international politics has been dominated by the ‘politics-as-conflict’ paradigm”[i].

The various narratives as highlighted by role of conflicts in critical understanding of foreign policy is not limited up to an extent of snubbing off the diplomatic ties between two or more nations but also leading up to cooperation amongst them.

Series of critical debates has evolved and initiated challenges that have emerged as a result of resurgence of ‘religion’ in foreign policy[ii]. The special emphasis of this debate is on religious freedom and rights of religious minorities in foreign policy. The direction of this debate is more candid towards human right elements, but to be relevant, therefore, state must honor the position religion occupies in global politics and respect the secular and religious tones adequately.

With this background, the author wants to shift the focus of the current article towards the practical scenario, so as to understand and critically appreciate India’s position within these broad themes. Next section of this article, i.e. deconstructing syntax of India’s foreign policy towards Israel, would be a step in that direction, followed by conclusive section, i.e. way-forward, critiquing India’s position (within those narratives) with certain valuable suggestions.

Deconstructing syntax of India’s foreign policy towards Israel:

India and Israel are two democracies that share resembling history which is blotted by British colonial rule and they were whittled independence only a few months apart. The other commonalities is having hostile neighbor. In spite of having commonalities shared in their history, since 1948 India has observed Israel through a narrow lens. For almost four decades, India had virtually abstruse diplomatic relations with Israel, and has clearly changed its stance over the period of time.

In early period, India voted against the Partitioning of Palestine plan of 1947 and also and voted against Israel's admission to the United Nations in 1949. However, it lost by a majority vote (two-thirds; 33 in favor and 13 against) that approved the establishment of Israel and Palestinian as two separate, independent countries. Thus, Israel was born on May 14, 1948. Later on, in 1950, India officially recognized the State of Israel. There were number of factors which influenced India’s foreign policy, namely, its sympathetic stand towards Arabs, India’s foreign policy was predisposed by the Cold War orientations, and at the same time, newborn India did not want to isolate its considerably large Muslim minority (which was also seen as minority appeasement in domestic context).  From India's acknowledgment of Israel in 1950 to the early 1990s, the relationship remained very casual in nature. India's opposition to official diplomatic relations with Israel stemmed from both domestic and foreign considerations, as mentioned above.

India formally established its relations with Israel in January 1992 and ties between the two nations have flourished since, primarily due to common strategic interests and security threats. Even after officially establishing its diplomatic relation with Israel, India remained skeptic to the fact that it didn’t wanted to be indifferent to the cause of Palestine, due to its pro-Arab policy. Therefore a sort of balance was tried to be achieved by Indian government in order to maintain their established foreign policy as well as this cardinal shift in their international affairs. But only as late as in 2017, Prime Minster Narendra Modi became first ever Indian Prime Minister to officially visit Israel. This move was to be understood from the perspective that India wanted to break down certain shackles and value its strategic ally, without retaining same parochial view as existed and continued during our Independence and latter till 1990’s respectively.

It needs no special mention over here, that within these narratives, i.e. India’ foreign policy towards Israel, a significant role has been played by ‘conflict’ and ‘religion’. These aspects can’t be undervalued especially after scrutinizing their role within foreign policy in modern day context. India and Israel have attained their partition on religious lines, as well as, fought various wars (nuances of conflict) with its respective neighbor, which stands as testimony to the fact that India’s foreign policy towards Israel does have tinge of religious connotation, as well as, chunk of conflict study.

Conflict Study: Though India and Israel has never been into conflicts with each other but they have been in constant military war with their respective neighbor, which makes their position quite vulnerable in global context. Due to which, both countries understand and value the amount of struggle each go through, to maintain peace and security within their nation. The year of 1999 was considered to be the age of ‘diplomatic renaissance’ between the two countries as an infamous and catastrophic Kargil-Dras war, fought in Jammu and Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, proved to be turning point in their relation. Israel proved to be an important ally and defense instrument of support, providing India with ammunition when Pakistan infiltrated the Kargil-Dras region. In this context, government of India chose to strengthen its ties with technologically advanced Israel. With Israel on its side, India was able to flip the situation during the Kargil-Dras war.

The other side of this debate is ‘Palestine struggle’, which directly involves a serious conflict between Israel and Palestine. Under this milieu, the diplomatic relation of India with Palestine had a profound impact on our foreign policy towards Israel. In the earlier years of its post-independence era, India vowed to stand with Palestine and was the first non-Arab country to contemporaneously recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization’s authority as "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. Indian support was said to extend to "consistent and unwavering support" on the Palestinian issue, where it shared the perception that the question of Palestine is at the core of the Arab–Israeli conflict. India has unswervingly supported the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to a State and the ensuing overbearing need for a fair, evenhanded, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region based on various related United Nations Security Council Resolutions, as well as the principle of "Land for Peace." India has also been consistent with regard to bestowing of its foreign aid to Palestine and its cause. Though Government of India maintained close diplomatic ties with Israel eventually as an important defense partner but without considerably showing support for Israel in the Palestine-Israeli conflict. Therefore, it compelled Israel to complain that “it never gets its due from India despite booming security ties; the Indian political establishment did not want to take the apparently risky step of bringing Indo-Israeli ties out of the closet[iii].

But the scenario has dramatically changed ever-since the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel, as there has been increased cooperation in military and intelligence ventures. India has turned out to be largest buyer of Israeli military equipment and Israel is the second-largest defense supplier to India after Russia. Military and strategic ties between the two nations extend to intelligence sharing on terrorist groups and joint military training. Diplomatic Relationship between the two countries further expanded when present-day administration chooses to abstain from voting on a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on July 3, adopting the Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict. The report largely condemns Israel’s actions during last year’s Operation Protective Edge; a seven week military operation by Israel into the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip. Even at the height of the tension between Hamas and Israel in 2014, a move to table resolution against Israel as forward in Indian parliament was categorically rejected. In this account, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, as a part of explanation, insisted that "there is absolutely no change in India's policy towards Palestine, which is that we fully support the Palestinian cause while maintaining good relations with Israel", clarifying India's current position on this issue. The advent of conflict bring these two strategic allies together for the purpose of joint-military operation, intelligence sharing, tackle the menace of global terrorism and various deals on arms and ammunition which gets more weightage and fostering by current administrations of two countries, in July 2017.

Interfaith Relation (Religious tone): The birth of both these nation was on religious lines and interestingly both the nation till this date has hostile neighbor with whom it parted. As a result of it, according to an international poll conducted in 2009, 58% of Indians expressed sympathy with Israel, as compared to 56% of Americans[iv]. Therefore religion does take a predominant seat when it comes to its relevance in drawing India’s foreign policy towards Israel.

As far as religion is concerned India is largely a Hindu-majority nation while Israel is Jews-majority, and interfaith relation amongst the two seems to be well knitted. The Jewish-Hindu interfaith leadership summit held annually authenticates this fact. During first Jewish-Hindu interfaith leadership summit which was held in New Delhi, 2007 Rabbi Metzger stated:

“Jews have lived in India for over 2,000 years and have never been discriminated against. This is something unparalleled in human history."

Apart from interfaith integration, presence of Judaism in India has also played a big role in formulating its policies towards Israel. Judaism is one of the foreign religions that were welcomed whole-heartedly in India. Indian-Jews are a religious minority in India, but unlike many parts of the world, have historically lived in India without any instances of anti-Semitism from the local majority populace, the Hindus. The better-established ancient communities have assimilated a large number of local traditions through cultural diffusion. It also needs to be mentioned that a large number of Indians lives in Israel. The Indian diaspora, estimated to be 85,000, largely consist of Indian origin Jews who migrated back to Israel in late 1950’s.

The escalation of terrorism in the form of ISIS, Lashkar-E-Taiba, HAMAS, etc. has been quite critical to the overall development of both the nations. Their wrath has taken toll over innocents in both the nations. Therefore menace of Islamic terrorism in both nations has generated a strong strategic alliance between the two. The presence of hardliners and extremist in both the country also challenges their social fabrics which require joint efforts from both the nations to take certain serious efforts to curb down this evil. Their also religion plays a vital role in managing this complex situation.

Way forward:

India’s foreign policy towards Israel could best be summed up as ‘Constructivism’ and to certain extent as ‘Political Realism’. In the discipline of international relations, constructivism is the claim that significant aspects of international relations are historically and socially constructed, which could gauged from the fact that ‘role religion has played in the foreign policy of India towards Israel’. While it also maintain certain flavor of realism as it emphasizes the role of nation-states which are motivated by national interest, duly reflected by the role of conflict in India’s foreign policy towards Israel especially in the wake of its military support to India in Kargil-Dras war.

The last year visit of India’s Prime Minister to Israel is path breaking step taken by Indian government, to further its relation with Israel. This sudden shift in the foreign policy towards Israel was viewed by certain section as a step towards ‘De-hyphenation’. It represents complete change in our foreign policy which was pro-Arab policy. But India cannot at this juncture under-value its closest ally, given that it could provide a big heap to India in the front of space and technology, foreign trade, military power, agriculture, infrastructure and tourism, etc. through proper bilateral negotiations between these two nations. The parochial view taken by certain section in criticizing the present day government over its exclusive diplomatic trip to Israel is based on the fact that our foreign policy must only reflect secular tones, which may or may not be advantageous for our nation in future. In spite of de-hyphenation, India’s policy towards Israel should not in any way be seen as its indifference towards the cause of Palestine. India from past has stood with Palestine in their struggle and its relation with Israel should not have any consequence towards Palestine. It should necessarily take all its allies in confidence in order to maintain its multi-polar approach in the international system.

It could be reasoned beyond any doubt, that the foreign policy of a nation is pedantically impacted by various elements which itself goes through a change during the course of time. As a result of it, the foreign policy of any nation is not stagnant or remains same towards other nation. It could be reiterated that religion and conflict are those elements which do play a critical role in constructing and deciphering the foreign policy of any nation.

But that said it should be bear in mind that thrust of any foreign policy cannot not be squeezed within these factors only. As mentioned in the opening remarks (Quoted by Samantha Power) that “foreign policy is an explicitly amoral enterprise”, which means that it should not be decorated as a moral concept. It remains to certain extent away from right and wrong, and more reflective to the fact that ‘national interest’ should always come first while drawing our foreign policy towards any nation.

Saurabh Sharma attends South Asian University, Delhi, pursuing Masters in Law (LLM in International Law)

End Notes

[i] Michael Don Ward, Cooperation and Conflict in Foreign Policy Behavior: Reaction and Memory, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Mar., 1982), pp. 87-126 < http://www.jstor.org/stable/2600600> accessed on 15th July 15, 2017.

[ii] Daniel Cere (et.), Religion and Foreign Policy (OpenCanada) accessed on 15th July, 2017.

[iii] Harsh V. Pant, Modi’s Passage to Israel (The Diplomat, 2017) < http://thediplomat.com/2017/07/modis-passage-to-israel/ > accessed on 18th July 18, 2017.

[iv] Itamar Eichner, From India with love (YNetNews, 2009) accessed on 19th July 19, 2017.

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