India, Israel, and Palestine
19/05/2021

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Context:

  • Recently, India’s permanent representative to the United Nations, T S Tirumurti, made a carefully crafted statement at the UN Security Council “open debate” on the escalating Israel-Palestine violence, striving to maintain balance between India’s historic ties with Palestine and its blossoming relations with Israel.

About:

  • The statement, the first India has made on the issue, appears to implicitly hold Israel responsible for triggering the current cycle of violence by locating its beginnings in East Jerusalem rather than from Gaza.
  • The request that both sides refrain from “attempts to unilaterally change the existing status quo including in East Jerusalem and its neighbourhoods” seems to be a message to Israel about its settler policy.
  • The statement was also emphatic that “the historic status quo at the holy places of Jerusalem including the Haraml al Sharif/Temple Mount must be respected”.
  • The site, administered by Jordan, is revered in both Islam and Judaism. Jewish worshippers are not allowed inside but have often tried to enter forcibly.
  • India’s policy on the longest running conflict in the world has gone from being unequivocally pro-Palestine for the first four decades, to a tense balancing act with its three-decade-old friendly ties with Israel. In recent years, India’s position has also been perceived as pro-Israel.

From Nehru to Rao

  • In 1953, consulate in Mumbai was established mainly for issuing visas to the Indian Jewish community, and to Christian pilgrims. This too shut down in 1982, when India expelled the Consul General for criticising India’s foreign policy in a newspaper interview. It was permitted to reopen only six years later.
  • In 1948, India was the only non-Arab-state among 13 countries that voted against the UN partition plan of Palestine in the General Assembly that led to the creation of Israel.
  • The opening of an Indian embassy in Tel Aviv in January 1992 marked an end to four decades of giving Israel the cold shoulder.

Changes after 2014

  • India-Israel relationship continued to grow, mostly through defence deals, and in sectors such as science and technology and agriculture. But India never acknowledged the relationship fully.
  • After 2014, the new phase came with an abstention by India at the UN Human Rights Council on a resolution welcoming a report by the HRC High Commissioner.

East Jerusalem

  • Pranab Mukherjee, who in 2015 became the first Indian President to visit Israel, with a first stop at Ramallah, had also reiterated India’s position on the city as the capital of an independent Palestine.
  • In February 2018, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. His itinerary did not include Ramallah. The word then was that India had “de-hyphenated” the Israel-Palestine relationship, and would deal with each separately.
  • Meanwhile, India continues to improve ties with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and feels vindicated by the decision of some Arab states to improve ties with Israel.

Balancing act

  • In fact, the de-hypenhation is a careful balancing act, with India shifting from one side to another as the situation demands.
  • For instance, even as it abstained at UNESCO in December 2017, India voted in favour of a resolution in the General Assembly opposing the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
  • At the UNHRC’s 46th session in Geneva earlier in 2021, India voted against Israel in three resolutions – one on the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people, a second on Israeli settlement policy, and a third on the human rights situation in the Golan Heights.
  • It abstained on a fourth, which asked for an UNHRC report on the human right situation in Palestine, including East Jerusalem.
  • In February, the International Criminal Court claimed jurisdiction to investigate human rights abuses in Palestinian territory including West Bank and Gaza and named both Israeli security forces and Hamas as perpetrators.
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted India, which does not recognise the ICC, to take a stand against it on the issue, and was surprised when it was not forthcoming.
  • That is because India’s own balancing act is a constant work of progress. The latest statement is no different. Though it was not pro Palestine, it hardly pleased Israel.
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