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India’s vote in favour of the UN Human Rights Council’s latest resolution against Israel has come in for considerable domestic criticism. This decision seems to reject conventional wisdom to support Israel, prompting fears that we have jeopardised critical areas of cooperation, including defence sales and energy exploration. The kindest explanations for the decision still call it confused, if not schizophrenic.
Such criticism, however, reflects a wilfully narrow and naïve understanding of various subjects: national interest, diplomacy, the United Nations system, and the history of Indian relations with both Israel and Palestine. The vote is, in fact, entirely consistent with Indian policy on the Palestinian question. It protects (even promotes) our national interest in the broader region, and puts only the most illusory strain on our relations with Israel.
India’s unique leverage in the region is a history of evenhanded, impartial engagement. Our diplomatic stance is calibrated to maintain this reputation. Our positions are articulated from the standpoint of an honest friend and ally, who will not eschew criticism nor flatter to deceive. Consider, for example, the balanced view evident in this excerpt from the statement made by our representative in the Human Rights Council:
“We are deeply concerned at the human rights situation in Occupied Palestine Territory including East Jerusalem, as also at the violence by non-state actors in the region which have the effect of serving as avoidable obstacles to the peace process, as well as to the realization of the legitimate aspirations of both the peoples to co-exist in peace and security.”
India consistently echoes the language of UN resolutions that envisage a peaceful, two-state solution. India remains one of the few countries to maintain full diplomatic ties with both Israel and Palestine, and to recognise the sovereignty of both on equal terms. We consistently support the Palestinian cause, and criticise Israel’s use of force against Palestinian civilians, simultaneously expanding trade and defence ties with Israel. Critically, both Israel and Palestine accept this situation.
Not by coincidence has India chosen to denounce Israel in the one forum to which Israel attaches minimal importance. Israel has denounced the Human Rights Council as a farce—not without basis—and the United Nations itself as a theatre of the absurd. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu infamously suggested that the General Assembly was chaired by terrorists when Lebanon held the presidency. A private reaffirmation would amply ensure that Israel discounts any statements made therein. Meanwhile, India maintains a studied silence on the truly volatile issues, such as the expansion of settlements, or the use of pre-1967 borders.
Some cannot fathom why India is supporting Hamas terrorists. It apparently escapes their notice that we specifically raise concerns about the actions of non-state actors, and their derailing of the peace process in Palestine. More insidiously, they assume that Hamas, as an Islamic movement that has had recourse to terrorism, must necessarily be anti-India. They neglect the complex constellations of interest involved in modern terrorism: Hamas, for instance, has strenuously resisted subversion of the Palestinian cause by a broader Islam under siege rhetoric.
There are many worrying developments in the unfolding crisis: global desensitisation, the radicalisation of society in these nations, the institutionalisation of cycles of violence. It is painfully clear that no military solution will resolve this conflict—such hope as there is lies in political reconciliation, meaning a process of dialogue and negotiation. Bringing these increasingly polarised, mutually hostile parties to the table will require a skilled and trusted mediator. It is precisely in this situation that India, with a history of strong and friendly relations with both parties, could step in to facilitate discussions.
Our domestic carping tends to obscure this historic opportunity. The US will never be seen as a neutral or impartial actor in the region. India, with limited and transparent interests, with a history of gravitating towards the moral high ground rather than realpolitik, and with considerable experience managing the interests of Islamic constituents at home, brings many positives to the table. Moreover, we benefit no matter what the outcome. Mediating a successful negotiation would bring considerable prestige, for we would succeed where even the US has failed. Even if negotiations fail, India salvages goodwill locally—you get points for trying, as Tony Blair puts it—and signals to the world our willingness to step up to the responsibilities of the great power role to which we aspire.
This requires, however, that we desist from the current unidimensional and naïve protestation to pick a side. Impartiality, it must be re-emphasized, holds real value in diplomacy, and it is entirely possible to take a concrete and principled stance without selecting between one of two conflicting parties. The binary “you are either with us, or against us” attitude is rightly perceived as untenably simplistic. India has long resisted any such blandishments—Pandit Nehru is said to have answered that ultimatum with a simple yes—and must ignore those who urge otherwise today.
Let us not forget, if there is any hope for peace between Palestine and Israel, it lies in nuance.
Ameya Naik is a research scholar at the Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think-tank.