How the Gaza fallout is coming closer to India

Haifa, whose port is on lease to an Indian-led consortium, was a key site for Zionist nation-building. No wonder Israel’s enemies have the area in their crosshairs
Image used for representational purpose.
Image used for representational purpose.Express illustration | sourav roy

Our new government has gotten into stride in the diplomatic arena within days of assuming power. The big setback that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered in the general elections has been interpreted internationally as a severe reprimand for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Without doubt, the Indian voter pushed back against concentrated power, and the expectation is that it may force Modi to opt for cautious approaches. Time will tell. 

Foreign policy is not going to be a hot-button issue for the opposition, which now has a strong presence in parliament. Rahul Gandhi, who led the opposition campaign in the polls and emerged victorious, hardly wasted breath on foreign policy issues. And as the Leader of the Opposition, he is all but certain to remain focused on domestic issues, with an eye on people’s concerns about their livelihood, jobs, poverty, governance and so on.

But Rahul Gandhi has an erudite and eclectic mind, open to taking things from many different sources in a conceptual approach of highlighting the government’s mistakes and deficiencies. Suffice to say, the return of parliamentary order will complicate some of Modi’s ambitious projects in the diplomatic arena, where he staked his prestige and reputation—the Haifa port project of the Adani Group and the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) top the list.

The Achilles’ heel of the BJP government’s foreign policy is that it revolved around the aura that has been assiduously built around Modi. A good foreign policy is a projection of national policy, but what we have seen in the past decade was a concerted attempt by the establishment and a pliant media to exploit diplomatic ventures theatrically to boost the stature of the prime minister as if ‘Modi is India and India is Modi’. Of course, it didn’t work, as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar would have realised by the afternoon of June 4. A new approach becomes necessary. How the dilemma is going to be resolved remains to be seen.

In late July last year, India’s largest port developer and operator, Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone, acquired the lease of the Haifa port in Israel lasting until 2054, in a consortium with Israeli group Gadot. Clinching the $1.18-billion deal, Adani holds 70 percent of the shares.

A perception exists about the seamless access and clout of the Adani Group to the political elite. There is nothing wrong here. Such nexus is the lifeblood of corporate culture and is endemic to capitalism. The government seems to have used its good offices with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure the Haifa project for the Adani group, overcoming some significant resistance within Israel.

The Haifa port is a highly strategic entity and this deal materialised soon after an online conference held between US President Joe Biden, the then Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, United Arab Emirates President Mohammed Bin Zayed, and Prime Minister Modi during Biden’s visit to Israel in July 2022, where the four leaders gave their blessing to a new quadrilateral arrangement known as I2U2 (Israel-India-UAE-US) in sync with the Abraham Accords aimed at the integration of Israel in its region.

Meanwhile, Jerusalem and Washington began promoting an upgraded trade route between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, which would connect the Gulf directly to Europe through an Israeli seaport. Propagated as a game-changer that will upgrade global trade in West Asia, the real intention was to improve Israel's position as a transportation hub for moving cargo from the far east to Europe, while highlighting the role of the US in the region. Thus was born the idea of the IMEC.

What additionality would India get by being bracketed in the I2U2 grouping? India has excellent relations with the other three protagonists and has no need to piggyback on any of them or assume their liabilities. Again, what has India got to do with the IMEC? India has connectivity with West Asia and Europe from time immemorial. The Suez Canal provides connectivity with all European ports.

On the contrary, the IMEC is a cumbersome route involving multiple transhipping, combining a ship-to-rail transit network with new railway lines and road transport. Plainly put, the government’s sole motivation could be that the IMEC may reroute India’s export trade with the European market via Israel, which will indeed generate more business and windfall profit for the Haifa port. But why should the Indian trader or industry assume such an obligation? It is a troubling question.

Fundamentally, what the government overlooked was that the Abraham Accords were unravelling. With the horrific violence that Israel let loose in Gaza, that country will remain a shunned state unless and until the Palestine problem gets resolved through negotiations—of which, of course, there are no signs today, since the majority opinion in Israel opposes a two-state solution. Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said on Monday that he plans to make the occupied West Bank a part of Israel “to thwart any possibility of establishing a Palestinian state in the heart of the country”.

Zionism will be resisted, and Haifa is at the centre of the storm. If our Ministry of External Affairs had not abolished its fantastic Historical Division, it would have had a sense that the Haifa port was a key site of Jewish colonisation and Zionist nation-building since the 1940s. It witnessed unspeakable violence when Palestinians were expelled in 1948 to change the demography in an event known as the Nakba, meaning catastrophe in Arabic.

The searing memory of the Nakba is embedded in the collective consciousness of West Asia. The Axis of Resistance has earmarked Haifa as a target for retribution. The Haifa port has a bleak future going forward and Delhi is in no position to salvage the huge investment that the Indian corporate group made in an act of folly, probably misled by the Israelis. India shouldn’t have been wandering eyeless in Haifa.

(Views are personal)

M K Bhadrakumar

Former diplomat

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