India-Pakistan through the Israel-Palestine Mirror

July 30, 2014

If you think reconciling the Israelis and Palestinians is hard, try the Indians and Pakistanis. The latest war in Gaza has laid bare India’s and Pakistan’s different views about the Middle East, revealing a great deal about how these countries view themselves and each other. The newly elected Indian government of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has become more confident about showing sympathy for Israel, bringing to the surface a relationship that has been growing for more than two decades. Pakistan refuses to recognize the Jewish state and its outrage over Palestinian deaths in Gaza is colored by its identity as a country bristling to defend the rights of Muslims around the world, from Palestine to Kashmir. These different worldviews could ultimately exacerbate the historical animosity between the two countries, and pit the pro-Israel Hindu right in India against the hawkish pro-military establishment in Pakistan.

In the early decades after independence in 1947, it was India rather than Pakistan that was particularly vocal about the Palestinian cause. The partition of Palestine to create the state of Israel in 1948, coming just one year after British India was partitioned to create Pakistan, was seen in South Asia as a legacy of British imperialism. India’s commitment to champion the Palestinian cause fitted, therefore, with the anti-colonial spirit of the Non-Aligned Movement of which it was a leading member. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — disliked by Pakistan for her role in its defeat in the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh — got on particularly well with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat. In addition to its anti-colonial stance, India had powerful domestic political reasons for supporting the Palestinian cause. The Israel–Palestine conflict is viewed monolithically in South Asia as one primarily between Muslims and non-Muslims. Indian governments, wary of alienating Muslim voters who make up roughly 14% of the electorate, had an incentive to side with the Palestinians. Finally, India was determined to prove its secular credentials. Support for the Palestinians — which was then a leftist cause — was one way for governments in New Delhi to show they could fairly represent both Hindus and Muslims, thus demonstrating that Pakistan had been wrong to insist on the need for a separate homeland for Muslims.

While Pakistan also viewed Israel as having been imposed on Palestine as a result of European colonialism, it was nonetheless more circumspect because of its alliance with the United States during the Cold War. Islamabad’s close ties with Washington also meant it was regarded with suspicion by Arab nationalists and kept at arm’s length. Though Pakistan refused to recognise Israel, Pakistani support for the Palestinians in the early decades after 1947 came from the public rather than officials, who had a different message. Its future military ruler, then-Brigadier Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, massacred Palestinians on behalf of Jordan in the Black September civil war in 1970.

The end of the Cold War, Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and subsequent defeat by the United States, and India’s own economic liberalization in 1991, all forced New Delhi into a major reappraisal of its policies towards the Middle East. The ideological approach that inspired the Non-Aligned Movement was replaced by a more pragmatic one designed to secure India’s economic and security interests. After siding mainly with secular Arab nationalists in the past, India began to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Pakistan, to secure its energy needs. Its new pragmatism also led it to give full diplomatic recognition to Israel in 1992. The two countries had much in common in terms of security. Both were status quo powers, with less incentive than their enemies to try to change the existing set-up — Israel when it came to Palestinian statehood and India in its conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir. Both were non-Muslim democracies that faced a threat from Islamist militants. Growing defense and security cooperation between the two countries bore fruit during the border war between India and Pakistan in the Kargil region of Jammu and Kashmir in 1999. At the time, India was facing sanctions over its nuclear tests the year before. When India ran short of artillery shells, Israel stepped in to supply them. India and Israel have steadily increased defense cooperation ever since. Among other things, Israel provides India with high-tech defense equipment that New Delhi has traditionally failed to get from the United States because of U.S. laws about transferring sensitive equipment. This includes Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems that could be used against Pakistan.

In contrast to India, Pakistan has become, if anything, more ideological in its worldview. After the independence of Bangladesh undermined the raison d’etre for Pakistan as a homeland for India’s Muslims, it became more strident in asserting its Islamic identity. The anti-colonialism fuelling support for Palestinians was viewed through a distinctly Muslim historical narrative , which implied that undivided India might have been freed from British rule far sooner had its Muslim inhabitants not been let down by the Hindus. This narrative also conflated anti-Hinduism with pan-Islamist sentiment in which Pakistan became the defender of all Muslims. This worldview gained in strength over the years as the Pakistan-run jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan melded into its longstanding anti-India stance. Thus, for example, in one typical textbook for “Pakistan Studies” — a compulsory course in the country’s history and ideology — Hindus under the British Raj were players of a double game who let down the Muslims “on account of their primordial psyche.” The Pakistan Studies textbook, this particular one published in 2012 for use at the Islamia College University, Peshawar links Palestine to Kashmir, describing a resolution of both conflicts as integral to Pakistan’s national interests. Importantly, it stresses that Pakistan is committed to the peaceful resolutions of all conflicts, whitewashing Pakistan’s own role in nurturing Islamist militants to counter India, including in Kashmir. The narrative of victimhood, of a peaceful country forced to defend Muslims against threats both near in India and far in Israel, has served Pakistan’s security establishment well, allowing it to justify a large and politically powerful army. It is also self-perpetuating. Pakistan’s external behaviour — exerting influence through the use of Islamist proxies — has led to such difficult relations with India and Afghanistan that it can reasonably claim to be faced with hostile neighbors on both sides. This in turn empowers the military, reinforcing its role in domestic politics. The national narrative — which enmeshes Palestine and Kashmir, pan-Islamism with anti-Hinduism — has so far proved extremely difficult to challenge, whether in seeking peace with India, demanding a stronger role for democracy, or the full-scale dismantling of militant networks inside Pakistan.

The different worldviews of India and Pakistan have been on full display since the latest crisis over Gaza erupted. In New Delhi, the BJP-led government made a show of support for Israel by refusing to allow a resolution in parliament condemning it for the strikes on Gaza.  In 2006 , Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat state, visited Israel and promised to return. India’s support for Israel is somewhat hesitant and discreet for now. It voted in favor of a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution launching an investigation into Israeli strikes in Gaza. BJP hawks, however, are calling for India to be much more vocal in supporting Israel. Domestically, the government appears to have room to do so. Having won national parliamentary elections this year despite suspicions over Modi’s role in presiding over the killings of Muslims in communal violence in 2002, the BJP is in a strong position to override any objections at home to warming ties with Israel.

Internationally, India has discovered that its relationship with Israel does not prevent it from building ties with Muslim countries, in part due to the Arab world’s own pragmatism and divisions on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and in part reflecting its own growing political and economic clout. Notably, it has been able to improve ties with Saudi Arabia — a country that is militarily close to Pakistan — while maintaining positive relations with Iran, a Saudi and Israeli rival. Growing world anger over high Palestinian civilian casualties might limit India’s public support for Israel in the short term. But the trend is clear. Neither concern about Muslim voters at home, nor traditional “Third Worldism” apply any longer to India’s policies towards Israel.

Pakistan responded to the crisis in Gaza by sponsoring the UNHRC resolution setting up an independent commission to investigate Israel’s behavior in Palestinian territory. It also promised to observe a day of mourning for the Palestinians by flying its flag at half-mast. On social media, popular outrage occasionally spilled into outright anti-Semitism — at one point #IfHitlerWasAlive was trending on Twitter in Pakistan. Clearly, Pakistan is not alone in being angered by the scale of Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza. In other Muslim countries, resentment over Israeli policies is usually wrapped together with dislike of the West. Where Pakistan is unusual, however, is in its degree of hostility toward the United States, Israel’s main backer. The two countries have been at odds since the 1990s over Pakistan’s support for the Islamist militants it nurtured to counter India and exert Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. The U.S.-led overthrow of the Afghan Taliban in 2001 exacerbated these differences without ever fully bringing them to the surface, so that Pakistani public opinion is both deeply hostile and suspicious of anything the United States says or does. Pakistan also has the distinction of mourning Palestinians rather more than its own people at a time of a major domestic refugee crisis. Close to a million people have registered as internally displaced persons after fleeing a military offensive in North Waziristan and there are increasing reports of civilian casualties in an operation that Pakistan, like Israel, says is to eradicate a threat from terrorism.

As the only country created specifically as a homeland for Muslims, and one that sees itself as an ideological Muslim state defending Muslim rights worldwide, Pakistan is particularly susceptible to the influence of external events. When Muslims are perceived to be ill treated by non-Muslims, in Palestine or Kashmir, Pakistan bristles with the sense of victimhood that allows it to justify maintaining a hyper-nationalist militarized state. In turn, it becomes a country that thrives on conflict, and where the military establishment dominates despite its incomplete transition to democracy. This is not necessarily the intention of many Pakistanis standing up for Gaza, but it is the effect. Outrage over Palestine feeds a carefully cultivated national narrative that wraps it together with perceived ill treatment of Muslims in Kashmir and conflates anti-India sentiment with pan-Islamism. Its stance will have no impact on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict; for all its talk of human rights abuses, Pakistan cannot afford to annoy Saudi Arabia by siding too closely with the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Hamas.

The different approaches to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and to the Middle East as a whole, have long been a source of tension between India and Pakistan. By trying to steer a pragmatic course and maintain good relations with all players for its own economic, energy and security interests, India is increasing its diplomatic clout in the Muslim world, the very constituency Pakistan would like to consider its own. In doing so, it is pulling far ahead of its smaller, pricklier neighbor, accentuating Pakistan’s sense of victimhood. India is also using its relationship with Israel to build its high-tech military capabilities, giving Pakistan another cause for anxiety and another reason to prioritise defense spending.

While this is a longstanding issue, the latest crisis in Gaza comes at a particularly delicate time for South Asia. Both Kabul and New Delhi fear that as the United States prepares to withdraw more combat troops from the region, Pakistan will step up support for Islamist militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Pakistan denies this. Yet in its stridency over Gaza, wearing its support for Palestine as a badge of national honor, Pakistan is showing no sign of stepping away from its national narrative. It is one that leaves no room for pragmatism or compromise. It is not the kind of mood authorities would normally encourage if they planned on making peace with Pakistan’s neighbors. Rather it is one that has spilled into open conflict with India in the past, while reinforcing the power of the military at home.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. She was Chief Correspondent in France and Bureau Chief in India. After publishing Heights of Madness, a book on the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, she has focused in recent years on writing about Pakistan.


Photo credit: Al Jazeera English