“We have diplomatic ties with both nations. Any discourteous reference can impact our relations with them,” says External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj
The dilemma faced by the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government over its stand on the escalating violence between Israel and Palestine came to the fore on Wednesday when it steadfastly refused the Opposition’s demand to discuss the issue in Rajya Sabha.
On Tuesday, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party turned down the Opposition’s suggestion that Parliament should pass a resolution condemning the Israel-Palestine conflict.While the government was able to handle this matter in the Lok Sabha where it enjoys a massive majority, it ran out of luck in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.
The BJP was clearly discomfited when a short duration discussion on the "unprecedented spurt in violence in Gaza and West Bank area of Palestine causing death of scores of civilians" was listed on the day’s list of business.
A visibly perturbed External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, however, maintained that such a discussion was not possible as it could hurt India’s diplomatic relations with both Israel and Palestine. “We have diplomatic ties with both nations. Any discourteous reference to any friendly country can impact our relations with them," she told the Upper House. Swaraj said she had written to Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari explaining why this discussion should not be allowed and urged members to await his ruling.
But an unrelenting and united Opposition insisted that the discussion be allowed by the chair stating that the list of business was now the property of the House and that a decision on the discussion could only be taken by the members.
The stand-off continued through the day as neither side refused to budge. The House witnessed uproarious scenes and was finally adjourned without transacting any business. Having tasted blood, the Opposition is adamant that they will not allow the House to function if their demand for a discussion is not conceded.
Parliamentary Affairs minister M Venkaiah Naidu was caught off-guard as he was not aware that his junior colleague Prakash Javadekar had agreed to this discussion. While Naidu said he was in the dark, Swaraj insisted that she was not consulted on this issue.
While frantic backroom parleys are on to end this impasse, the unfolding developments in the two houses of Parliament over the past two days shows the NDA government’s dilemma on the Israel-Gaza conflict. The Indian government has traditionally supported the Palestine cause and has stood firm on it even when it commenced diplomatic relations with Israel.
India’s balancing act between its support for Palestine and its friendly ties with the Israel was evident in the external affairs ministry’s official reaction to the ongoing violence in the Middle East.
“India is deeply concerned at the steep escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine, particularly, heavy air strikes in Gaza, resulting in tragic loss of civilian lives and heavy damage to property. At the same time, India is alarmed at the cross-border provocations resulting from rocket attacks against targets in parts of Israel,” the July 10 statement said.
The Israel-Palestine issue is particularly prickly for the Modi-led BJP government. While the BJP has been known to empathise with the Jewish battle to protect their homeland, Modi personally has invested heavily in building friendly ties with Israel as Gujarat chief minister. He had also visited Israel several times.
It was for this reason that questions were raised when President Pranab Mukherjee’s address to the joint session of Parliament, outlining the Modi government's proposed foreign policy initiatives, was silent on the Middle East and West Asia.
While this omission was dismissed as an oversight, BJP ministers insisted that their government did not favour a discussion in Parliament on the Israel-Palestine conflict because of the sensitivities involved. They said since 39 Indians are still in captivity in strife-torn Iraq, the NDA government was concerned that anything said during the course of a discussion could harm them.
”Our position on this is well-known …we are neither anti-Israel or anti-Palestine. We are for their peaceful co-existence. Moreover, we do not want such a sensitive matter to be coloured by politics,” Venkaiah Naidu told Rediff.com, adding that the Opposition was raising this issue to “appease minorities in India.”
Ironically, while his government refused to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict in Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintained that “remaining mute spectators to countries being torn up can have grave consequences,” while referring to the turbulence in the world in his speech at the BRICS Summit in Brazil.
While touching upon the violence in Afgahistan, Syria and Iraq, Modi also expressed concern at the recent outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestine. “We support a negotiated solution. This would inspire hope and confidence around the world,” he said.
Image: The mother of one of the four Palestinian children from the Baker family, whom medics said were killed by a shell fired by an Israeli naval gunboat, grieves outside the morgue in Gaza City. Photograph: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters