In an extraordinary development this week, Palestine’s Foreign Minister Riad Malki has written to his Indian counterpart, S Jaishankar, decrying India’s abstention from the latest United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on the Palestinian issue as an act that “stifles” human rights.
Using terms seen as “unusually strong”, Malki declared that the “Republic of India missed an opportunity to join the international community at this turning point, both crucial and long overdue, on the path to accountability, justice and peace.” Those are tough words to use for a long-standing ally and patron of the Palestinian cause.
The resolution, Malki pointed out, was the product of “extensive multilateral consultations” and India’s “abstention stifles the important work of… advancing human rights for all peoples, including those of the Palestinian people.”
The UNHRC resolution was adopted with 24 votes to 9 against, with 14, including India, abstaining. Its passage sets up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate violation of international law by Israel. As with previous such commissions, Israel will not co-operate in its work.
Still, the episode confirms a perceptible shift in the Indian position that many had noticed between the Indian intervention in the UN Security Council on 16 May and our statement in the UN General Assembly on 20 May.
Has India Thrown Its Support Entirely to Israel?
At the Security Council meeting, Permanent Representative TS Tirumurti seemed to echo the traditional policy in the area by noting that it was the intrusion by Israeli forces into the Al Aqsa mosque during Ramzan prayers that ruptured the delicate peace in the region. Three days later, that point was incomprehensibly omitted in India’s statement to the General Assembly, where sympathy for the Palestinians is actually far more extensive than in the Security Council.
The formulation reiterating “India’s strong support to the just Palestinian cause and its unwavering commitment to the two-state solution,” which was part of the Indian statement in the UN Security Council, was absent from the General Assembly statement, raising questions about the overall direction of our policy.
India’s later statement has also conveyed the impression that we have thrown our support entirely to Israel. Whereas an Indian citizen from Kerala, Soumya Santosh, a nurse serving in Israel, was among the casualties early in the conflict, and India, mourning her tragic death, would be justified in condemning the rocket attacks by the Hamas whatever the provocation, the Indian stand at the General Assembly went well beyond this in showing understanding of the Israeli case.
Strikingly, nowhere did India point out that disproportionate retaliation by a much stronger, organised military is unacceptable, particularly in view of the civilian casualties caused by Israeli strikes, including the deaths of many women and children. At the same time, the Israeli attack on media offices, undermining the first principles of free flow of information, went without censure from our side.
Israeli Treatment of Palestinians: How India Toned Down Its Reactions
India’s abstention in the voting at the Human Rights Council on 27 May — on a resolution reiterating international law and demanding Israel’s compliance with globally-acknowledged human rights — merely confirmed the policy shift. If previously we had managed both relationships with the dexterity of a diplomatic trapeze artist, here we had clearly fallen off the tightrope.
It is true that over the years, the Indian government has been toning down its statements reacting to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, expressing mild disapproval and also denouncing Palestinian transgressions which in the past it had been inclined to excuse, or even justify, as reactions to harsh Israeli policies. As relations with Israel warmed, India stopped initiating hostile resolutions at the UN, while continuing to vote for them. It was seen as a moderating influence in shaping the language of some anti-Israel resolutions.
New Delhi’s Juggling Act
It’s not easy. Policy-makers in Delhi must juggle a number of considerations. There are obvious domestic interests involved, given the passionate support of India’s 190 million Muslims for the Palestinian cause. This also explains India's largely pro-Arab stance in the region, further buttressed by the presence of some six million Indian workers in the Gulf countries, a vital source of remittances which New Delhi would not wish to jeopardise.
On the other hand, the Arab world itself is changing, with a growing number of countries joining Egypt in recognising Israel and seeing it as a source of support against the growing menace of radical Islamism in the region, which could threaten many of the Arab regimes in place. A more pro-Israel Indian policy would now have fewer negative consequences.
And the increasing closeness of India and Israel — particularly the enhanced security co-operation between the two countries — means alienating the Jewish State carries a greater price for India than in the past. Netanyahu pointedly left India off a tweet listing twenty countries he thanked for standing by Israel. We are scrambling to make amends.
Need for a Fine Balance
These three UN meetings have made India's tilt towards Israel amply clear.
Still, a balance must be found. There are mounting concerns abroad about the BJP government’s propagation of Hindutva bigotry at home. Taking Israel’s side completely risks India’s stance being projected in the Muslim world as a Jewish-Hindu axis against Islam. This is obviously not in our interests, whoever is in power in New Delhi.
The Congress party, which in government strove to maintain a careful balance in its support for Palestinian rights and freedoms while deepening strategic, security and technological co-operation with Israel, expressed its dismay at this overt tilt. It reiterated that our traditional position in support of the two-state solution, with appropriate recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of independent Palestine, “must not be undermined by omission”.
India has long maintained that both parties must abjure violence and return to peace negotiations to achieve a two-state solution, with equal sovereign rights for the two peoples, there being no other path to a meaningful, peaceful co-existence of Israel and Palestine.
How India Can Turn Our ‘Lose-Lose’ Proposition Into a ‘Win-Win’
Right now, as the Netanyahu tweet and the Malki letter make clear, we are at risk of disappointing both sides in the conflict. Our policy looks like a lose-lose proposition.
We should try to turn it into a win-win. As one of the few countries to have maintained good relations with both parties to the conflict, India should seriously consider the appointment of a Special Envoy to the Middle East, to lend our good offices to both Israel and Palestine in the quest for peace.
We had such a position in the past, but it was allowed to lapse. Perhaps the time has come for the Modi government to revive it.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)