India’s left-wing, influential Hindu newspaper ran a story in December under the headline “India may end support to Palestine at UN.” The over-line to the headline read: “Major shift in foreign policy.”
“In what could amount to a tectonic shift in the country’s foreign policy, the Modi government is looking at altering India’s supporting vote for the Palestinian cause at the United Nations to one of abstention,” the story read, referring to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was elected in May 2014.
“Two sources within the government confirmed to The Hindu that the change, which will be a fundamental departure from India’s support to the cause of a Palestinian state, was under consideration,” the report continued.
The story obviously captured the attention of policy-makers in Jerusalem, but there was skepticism.
In fact, it was seen by some as an attempt by certain officials in the Indian government to scuttle the policy – smother it before it was even born – by making it public.
If that was the case, however, the tactic failed.
After India’s high-profile abstention last Friday on an anti-Israel resolution
at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva – which followed by a month another Indian abstention on a vote to give UN recognition to an NGO with alleged links to Hamas – it now seems fair to say that, well, shift happens. And it is not an inconsequential shift.
Israelis were not the only ones to notice, although the Israelis did notice, and – at a blue-ribbon political dialogue in Jerusalem on Tuesday with a delegation from New Delhi – expressed their appreciation for the vote.
The Palestinians also took heed. Indeed, they noted, complained and even issued veiled threats.
The Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to India, Adnan Abu Alhaija, told the Hindu this week that the Palestinian people were “shocked” by the vote – based on the UNHRC’s investigative committee that censured both Israel and Hamas, but especially Israel, for last year’s war in Gaza – and that the vote detracted from the “happiness” they felt at the adoption of the resolution.
In an odd twist to voting patterns, India abstained on the resolution – as did Ethiopia, Kenya, Paraguay and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – while 41 countries, including eight EU countries and friends of Israel such as Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands, voted for it. And, of course, the only country to vote against was the US.
“India is a very special country for us, and its abstention from voting can be termed as a departure from India’s traditional position on Palestine that has remained unwavering since the last seven decades,” Alhaija said.
“In a scenario where European Union members who were once considered steadfast supporters of Israel voted against it, India’s abstention stands out as a sore thumb, and will send a confusing signal,” he added.
Confusing, indeed. What adds to the confusion is a report, not denied in Israel, that Jerusalem actually asked Britain and Germany to vote for the resolution, to ensure that the Palestinians put forth only a watered-down resolution – which they would do in order to get European support – rather than a much tougher one.
A watered-down resolution would essentially mean an end to the UNHRC investigation of Operation Protective Edge, while a tougher one – that would pass, even if the Europeans voted against it – would likely have sent the issue to the UN General Assembly, where it would have kicked around for quite some time, gaining more momentum.
After articulating Palestinian confusion, the PA envoy in his interview issued a veiled threat to India that its efforts to gain a long-soughtafter seat as a permanent member on the UN Security Council might be imperiled by these types of votes.
“There is a positive momentum on India’s claim over the expansion of the UNSC and inclusion of more permanent members,” he said. “This posture on Palestine will send a confusing signal to other UN members as to what India’s role would be, if and when it becomes a permanent member.”
The subtext to what he said is clear: Vote for the Palestinians or the world’s Arab and Muslim countries might not support the permanent inclusion of the world’s second- most populous nation on the UN Security Council.
But some, like Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said that one of the reasons India feels able to move in the positive and high-profile direction it is moving with Israel is the collapse of the Arab world.
There is no united Arab world to speak of any longer, said Inbar, who has written extensively in the past on Israel-Indian ties, so the threat of Arab diplomatic or economic sanctions is not what it once was. Or, as one diplomatic source said, “India is too important and too big for Arab countries to say, “We will get you for this.”
“What can they do to them?” Inbar said, noting that the Saudis are “weak,” the Palestinians are “marginal,” Iraq and Syria are only shadows of what they once were, and the Persian Gulf states have common strategic interests with Israel. The Indians, he said, are much less worried about angering the Arab world through ties with Israel than they might have been in the past.
And as to whether this would not ignite anger among the 180 million Muslims in India, the world’s second-largest Muslim population, Inbar said that not all the Indian Muslims automatically identify with what are seen as pan-Islamic issues.
“Islam in southeast Asia is more moderate than in the Middle East,” he said. While in the Middle East Islam is the dominant component of many people’s identity, that is not necessarily the case for India’s Muslims, 8 percent of whom voted for Modi in the last election.
Nonetheless, in a move seen as an attempt to placate Arab or Muslim anger after the UNHRC vote, India’s External Affairs Ministry issued a statement saying “there is no change in India’s long-standing position on support to the Palestinian cause.” It also explained its vote as having to do with the fact that India is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court and which was referenced in the resolution.
Inbar, however, cautioned to put those comments – even like the vote itself – into context and perspective.
Regarding the vote, Inbar said, it is important to recognize that India abstained but still didn’t vote for Israel.
“There is no need to exaggerate the importance,” he said.
As if to illustrate this, and the fact that India will not be replacing the US as Israel’s top friend and ally anytime soon, Modi on Thursday tweeted a picture of himself meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a summit in Russia, under a text that read: “India-Iran friendship discussed at the meeting.”
And regarding the statements explaining the vote put out by the Indian foreign ministry, Inbar said it is clear that the directives for this came from the top, and that the External Affairs Ministry – like so many foreign ministries around the world which are more predisposed to the Arab position than to Israel – was taking its directives from above.
And “above” in this case, Inbar said, was Modi himself, the leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP party who in his first year in power has taken strong Israel-India ties – which have developed over the last two decades, largely motored by arms sales and security cooperation – to a new level altogether.
Modi has met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and publicly referred to him as “friend,” has tweeted holiday wishes to Israelis in Hebrew, and has announced he will come to visit Israel in the next few months, something that would make him the first-ever Indian leader to do so.
Mark Sofer, a deputy director- general in the Foreign Ministry and head of its Division for Asia and the Pacific, said that while some attribute this positive orientation to the BJP, it is “deeper than that.”
While it was under then- BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit India in 2003, even then the ties were nowhere near where they are now, and there was no talk of India altering its voting pattern in the UN.
The relations have improved steadily over the years, but there has been a special “impetus” since Modi came into power, something Sofer called a “qualitative leap forward in every form of interaction.”
Sofer said that this “qualitative change is palpable in every single sphere, and that is important to note.”
India, he pointed out, has some 1.25 billion people, and everyone is running to engage with it.
While much – perhaps too much – is made of a lack of personal chemistry between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama (the differences there are more about fundamentally different ideologies and ways of seeing the world than about a failure to personally “click”), Sofer said there was a “chemistry” between Modi and Netanyahu, and that they speak “quite a bit” on the phone.
But that chemistry obviously flows from the fact that both men come from right-wing parties and share a conservative worldview.
Yet, he said, there is something else at play as well: “We suffer from a lot of the same things – from extremism coming from our neighbors.
They have terrible extremism coming from Pakistan.”
Under Modi, Sofer said, the Israeli-Indo relationship has “matured into a completely normal relationship, without hang-ups.” And one of those “hang-ups” being put to rest is India’s feeling the need to vote against Israel everywhere, at any time.