India on Friday, 30 December, abstained from voting at the United Nations General Assembly on a resolution asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for its view on the legal consequences of the "prolonged occupation" and "annexation" of Palestinian territory by Israel.
India was among 53 countries that abstained from the vote, which was passed after 87 countries voted in favour of it, including China, Pakistan, and Russia.
This is the latest in a long-line of abstentions by India at the UN, in line with the country's own national interest.
With the abstention, even though India walked the middle path between Israel and Palestine – both of which are its allies – not everybody is happy with the decision.
While some argue that there is nothing unusual about the vote, others say that it marks a setback to relations between Palestine and India, which has traditionally espoused the Palestinian cause and pushed for a two-state solution to the long-standing crisis.
Why Did India Abstain from Voting?
After it recognised the state of Palestine in 1988, India has never shied away from publicly expressing its support for Palestinian statehood and calling for a peaceful settlement to the dispute, despite having robust bilateral ties with Israel.
In fact, India has voted against several resolutions backed by Israel at the UN. In 2021, at the United Nations Human Rights Council, India voted against three resolutions of Israel – on the right of self-determination for Palestinians, on the human rights crisis in the Golan heights, and on the settlement policy of Israel.
This time around, however, India's abstention marks a significant departure from its traditional backing for the Palestinian cause.
Let's take a look at the reasons behind India's decision to abstain:
Language of the Resolution
One of the reasons that prima facie comes to the fore is the coarseness of the language and uncompromising tone used in the UN resolution against Israel.
Sujata Ashwarya, professor of international relations at Jamia Milia Islamia, told The Quint, "While the Indian delegation did not explain their vote, my suspicion is that the two questions posed to the ICJ in operative paragraph 18 of the draft resolution were overly harsh and painted Israel in a negative light."
She further added that given the breadth and depth of its ties with Israel, India does not want to be on the wrong side of a resolution that leaves little room for compromise.
Prioritising Economic & National Security Goals
Traditionally, India has been one of the most unwavering supporters of Palestine.
In 1974, India became the first non-Arab state to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), led by Yasser Arafat, as the sole representative of Palestine. The next year, it invited the PLO to open an office in New Delhi, and opened its own Representative Office to the State of Palestine in Gaza in 1996, which was later moved to Ramallah.
India has also extended support to Palestine in several multilateral forums, and affirmed the membership of Palestine to UNESCO and a "non-member state" of the UNGA.
However, in recent years, relations between Palestine and India seem to be on a downward trend, and thus more in favour of Israel.
Ever since India developed diplomatic relations with Israel, annual trade between the two countries has risen from $200 million in 1992 to over $4 billion in April 2020-February 2021.
Further, Israel is the second largest defence supplier to India, just after Russia, and a major investor in India's energy sector, research and development and other significant areas.
"This abstention is only the latest sign of the deepening 'love affair' between the two countries," Somdeep Sen, an expert on Palestine and a professor at Roskilde University, told The Quint.
"Over the years, India and Israel have developed a robust strategic, military and high-tech partnership. This uptick in the relationship has been particularly steep under the Narendra Modi-led BJP government that shares an ideological affinity with the right wing in Israel."Somdeep Sen
Thus, one can argue that economic considerations and national security goals played a big role behind India's decision to abstain, even if this meant ignoring moral considerations.
Analysing the break in the ties between India and Palestine in recent years, Michael Kugelman, the Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, said:
"New Delhi has not sought to balance its relations with the Israelis and Palestinians as much as it used to, and it has stepped up its ties with Israel in a big way. So with the relationship with the Palestinians, while still cordial but on a downward trend, the costs to the relationship are not as high as they may have been when the relationship was in a better place."
Modi-Bibi & Expanding Bilateral Relations
Hence, while the ties between Modi and Bibi – and thus India and Israel – flourished owing to the mutual benefits derived by both sides, India's ties with Palestine seem to have dwindled since 2014. So much so, that India's support for a two-state solution has been reduced to mere lip service.
"The Bibi-Modi personal rapport is a big reason why India-Israel relations have really taken off in recent years, and Netanyahu’s return to power may have given India extra incentive to abstain on the vote."Michael Kugelman to The Quint
However, this is not to say that India's decision to abstain was only due to the relations between Modi and Bibi. The expanding bilateral ties were the biggest reason behind it.
"India’s relations with Israel have reached a point where they’re not impacted by changes in the personalities in power. They’re guided by a strong desire to keep upgrading bilateral ties," Kugelman said.
Hence, India would have had a strong interest in abstaining no matter who was leading Israel’s government, he further added.
How Will Palestine React To India's Abstention?
While the PLO has not officially reacted to India's abstention, experts suggest that the development is sure to be seen by Palestine with much disappointment.
Mohammad Makram Balawi, president of the Asia Middle East Forum, told The Quint, "India is a historical supporter of the Palestinian cause and people. Hence, there is no doubt that such a stance would be considered as a negative development."
"It is very regrettable that while China is making more ground in the Middle East with the Palestinian people and the Arabs in general, India is taking this stance," the Istanbul-based writer added.
In recent decades, Palestine has been pushed to the brink owing to the loss in global support towards its cause. Indeed, the Palestinian movement is a far-cry compared to what it was during the years of the first Intifada.
The culmination of the loss of ground for the Palestinians was the signing of the Abraham Accords at the behest of the United States, which saw traditional supporters for Palestinian statehood, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, establish diplomatic ties with Israel.
Further, Palestine perhaps faces its greatest threat ever owing to the coming to power of arguably the most far-right government in Israel. Several ministers of the new government have openly called for a more hardline approach to Palestinians residing in West Bank and Gaza – both of which are under Israeli occupation.
At such a juncture, Palestine would have expected support at the UN from its traditional partners, including India.
"In many ways, India's ties with Palestine have already been downgraded and, as it stands today, India’s support for the Palestinian cause is nothing more than symbolic," Somdeep Sen told The Quint.
Also, with Israel mending its ties with West Asian countries, India does not feel compelled to maintain a pro-Palestine diplomatic stance, he added.
"In the past, India had to walk a tightrope and officially maintain its commitment to Palestine in fear of upsetting its important economic ties in the region. Not any more. And the latest abstention is evidence of this."Somdeep Sen to The Quint
When asked how Palestine may react to the abstention by India and other partners on the resolution, Balawi said:
"The Palestinian Authority (PA) has became so weak and dependent on others that most probably it will show no response."
He, however, cautioned that India's abstention would lead to it losing ground in the region, especially among the youth, "which comprise the majority of the supporters of Palestine."
The Quint has reached out to the Embassies of both Israel and Palestine in India for a comment but has not received any response yet.