(The article was originally published in Indian Express on November 18, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
Peace in West Asia is a priority for India. This energy rich region is the lifeline to India’s crude and natural gas needs, and an important trade and strategic partner. With the Israel–Hamas conflict entering the seventh week, concerns are growing over its potential to expand and destabilise the entire West Asia region. When the defence and foreign ministers of India and US met for the annual 2+2 dialogue last week in Delhi, this concern was evident in their deliberations.
The joint statement released at the end of the dialogue, while reiterating the support of both countries for Israel in its fight against Hamas terror, also underscored the need for adherence to international humanitarian law, “including with regard to the protection of civilians”. Preventing the conflict from spreading, preserving stability in the Middle East, and working towards a “political solution” and “durable peace” were mentioned as the objectives of the two countries.
Ties between India and the West Asian countries go back to the post-Independence period. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the reformist president of Egypt, was a leading light of the Non-Aligned Movement, which the first prime minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru, championed. Nasser’s friendship with Nehru came to India’s help when Egypt blocked the Portuguese navy from entering the Suez Canal during Goa’s liberation in 1961.
However, Pakistan’s proactive politics remained a dampener in India’s efforts to ratchet up relations with many countries in this region. Some of them were suspected to be aiding and abetting Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in India. Wanted terrorists like Dawood Ibrahim were reported to have regularly been seen in places like Dubai and Jeddah. The Scotland Yard had warned India in 2010 that an official in the consulate of an important Arab country in Mumbai was working for Dawood and his gang.
In the last decade, though, things transformed drastically. Focused efforts were made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to strengthen ties with almost all West Asian countries. Modi’s personal ties with leaders like Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) of the UAE and Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia also helped the process.
In a region riddled with intense internal rivalry and conflicts, Modi’s formula of “Bharat ki baat, sabke saath” — India’s engagement will be with everybody — worked wonders. In a speech in London in 2018, he asserted, “Yes, I will go to Israel, and I will even go to Palestine. I will further cooperate with Saudi Arabia and for the energy needs of India, I will also engage with Iran.”
De-hyphenation became the hallmark of Modi’s foreign policy, providing ample strategic autonomy to India’s benefit. He paid a standalone visit to Israel in 2017, becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit that country. “We waited 70 years for you,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exclaimed while receiving Modi at the Ben Gurion Airport. Next year, Modi made a standalone visit to Ramallah and received the highest civilian honour of Palestine from Mahmoud Abbas, the prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority.
West Asia is today the largest trade partner with India with the volume of the two-way trade touching $150 billion. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, with $90 billion and $50 billion trade respectively, emerged as strong partners in strategic and counter-terrorism cooperation with India. The UAE handed over Dawood’s aide, and a wanted terrorist, Farooq Takla, to India in 2018 and warned Pakistan not to allow its terrorists to use its territory.?
India’s biggest success in West Asia was at the Organisation of Islamic Countries — OIC (Organisation for Islamic Cooperation earlier). When Indira Gandhi sent a delegation led by Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to the inauguration of the IOC in 1969, Pakistan ensured that India was not provided a table at the event. Ahmed had to cool his heels in the hotel for a couple of days before returning without attending the session. But when the UAE hosted the 46th summit of the IOC in 2019, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj was invited as the Guest of Honour at the inaugural plenary. Pakistan tried to get the invitation rescinded. But to its chagrin, the hosts refused, forcing Shah Mahmood Qureshi, foreign minister of Pakistan to abstain. Underscoring India’s importance, the IOC went ahead and issued the Abu Dhabi Document, not mentioning the Kashmir issue for the first time.
India views the Israel–Palestine conflict from the larger prism of establishing peace and stability in West Asia. Not all West Asian powers support Hamas and Hezbollah. India shares the view of a two-state solution — “building a sovereign, independent and viable state of Palestine that lives side by side at peace with Israel” — together with the US and many other countries.?
The Oslo Accords of 1993, midwifed by US president Bill Clinton and signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, brought the two countries close to agreeing to the two-state solution. Although Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a hardline Israeli in 1995, Netanyahu, who came to power in 1996, took the process forward. Israel and the Palestine Authority signed the Hebron Protocol in 1997, which provided for the transfer of most of Hebron to Palestinian control. In October 1998, Clinton hosted Netanyahu and Arafat at the Wye River Plantation, where they negotiated an agreement calling for further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. By the time Clinton’s tenure came to an end in 2000, there was almost an agreement over an independent Palestine, which would have 98 per cent of the West Bank and entire Gaza.
However, the accord collapsed, largely due to Arafat’s deceptive moves and Hamas’ terror across Gaza and in Israel. As Israel is advancing to decimate Hamas in Gaza, it may sound untimely and unreal to talk about the two-state solution. But just as zero tolerance to terror is a principle for India, New Delhi is committed to the two-state solution as a lasting basis for peace in West Asia.