The story so far: Over the past weeks, India has expressed itself in statements, joint statements, and votes at the United Nations on the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, that saw a temporary pause for the exchange of hostages which began on Friday, November 24. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted two separate virtual summits, the concluding session of India’s G-20 and the second edition of the ‘Voice of Global South’ Summit, and spoke about the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, as well as the importance of heeding the concerns of the developing world. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar travelled to the U.K. for talks, held along with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh “2+2” dialogues with their counterparts from the U.S. and Australia where joint statements reflected the West’s position much more.
What is the position India has articulated?
India’s position, as articulated since the October 7 terror attacks along the Israel-Gaza border by Hamas that killed more than 1,200 people, and then on the bombardment of Gaza by Israel where more than 13,000 have been killed, has been multi-layered. The Modi government has condemned terrorism in the strongest language and stood with Israel over the attack, although it hasn’t thus far designated Hamas as a terror group. The government has called on Israel for restraint, dialogue and diplomacy and condemned the death of civilians, and along with the U.S. and Australia, called for “humanitarian pauses” in bombardment, but has not so far called for a “ceasefire”. At the same time, India has reaffirmed its support for a “two-state solution” including a sovereign, viable state of Palestine existing in peace alongside Israel, supported the “socio-economic welfare” of the Palestinian people, and has sent 70 tonnes of humanitarian assistance including 16.5 tonnes of medicines and medical supplies via Egypt to Gaza in the past month, Mr. Jaishankar said at the BRICS emergency meeting chaired by South Africa this week.
Mr. Modi, however, skipped the BRICS plus summit attended by all other leaders of the 11-nation grouping, indicating a discomfort with the tough line taken by South Africa that has asked for the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel for alleged “war crimes” in Gaza. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, India abstained at a UNGA vote on October 26 that called on Israel for a ceasefire, but voted in favour of other draft resolutions at the UNGA’s “Fourth Committee” on November 9 against Israel’s settler policies in the occupied territories including the West Bank and Syrian Golan.
What do the latest votes at the UN mean?
India’s decision to vote in favour of five out of six draft resolutions critical of Israel was explained by officials as a repeat of its earlier stance and “routine”. However, while India abstained on the October 26 vote because it said there was no explicit reference to the October 7 terror attacks by Hamas, it made no such caveat during the draft resolution votes, which will be cleared in the UNGA in December. The five draft resolutions India voted for dealt with the operations of the UNRWA, the UN agency that deals with Palestinians; assistance to Palestinian refugees; the issue of Palestine refugee properties; the area of Syrian Golan occupied by Israel; and Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including east Jerusalem and the occupied Syrian Golan. India, however, abstained from the resolution titled ‘Work of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories’. Of most significance was the vote criticising ‘Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Syrian Golan’ (A/C.4/78/L.15) that “condemns” Israeli demolitions of Palestinian villages and calls the occupation of those villages by Israeli settlers “illegal”, which India voted in favour of.
Is India’s position closer to the West or the Global South?
Traditionally, since its leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement, India’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict has always aligned with the Global South, offering full support for the Palestinian cause. It has called for talks to end the conflict, while building a stronger strategic, defence, counter-terrorism cooperation and trade ties with Israel since 1992, after they established full diplomatic ties. Since the Kargil war, where Israel provided India crucial and timely shipments of weapons and ammunition, a study of India’s statements at the UN showed a softening of language against Israel, including toning down “condemnation” of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, although it voted regularly with the developing world to stop the violence. India’s vote on October 26, however, was a departure from that, where it lined up alongside 45 abstentions, mostly from European countries, rather than the 120 countries, mostly from the Global South, which included nearly all the countries of West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and South America that voted for the resolution. India also joined the U.S.-led formulation of total condemnation of the October 7 terror attacks and for “humanitarian pauses”, ostensibly to allow food, fuel and water into Gaza in between periods of Israeli bombardment, language that appeared in both its joint statements after the 2+2 dialogues with the U.S. and Australia.
India has stood apart from Western countries in that it has not thus far banned Hamas, or designated it a terror organisation as the U.S., U.K., Switzerland and Germany have moved to do. In an effort perhaps to push India to do so, Israel this week announced it was banning the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the Mumbai 26/11 terror attacks that included Israeli victims, 15 years later.
How will this impact ties in West Asia?
While India’s relations with Israel have been increasingly “de-hyphenated” from its ties with Palestine, many experts have suggested that any change in its stance favouring Israel over all other ties with the Gulf and Arab world, will be watched closely. Each country has a rich history of ties with India. For several years, India has built special ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, calculating that the normalisation of ties between them and Israel is only a matter of time, as the Abraham Accords showed. As a result, the India-Israel-UAE-U.S. (I2U2) trade initiative and the recently launched India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor hinging on this normalisation could be one casualty of the Israel-Hamas conflict which has led to a strong reaction from the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. When asked this week, the U.S. Ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti, accepted that the conflict could pause infrastructure initiatives, but that in the long term, the logic of such plans would prevail.
India’s ties with Iran, Israel’s chief enemy, that have been strengthened by initiatives like the Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor to Central Asia and Russia could also be affected, if it seems that the Modi government is choosing one side more clearly than the other. Israeli companies have expressed interest in bringing in nearly a lakh of Indian workers to replace Palestinian workforce in the construction industry; New Delhi has thus far not jumped at the idea, keeping in mind the more than eight million Indians working in Gulf countries that could be impacted as well.
The Modi government, that is engaged in sensitive negotiations with Qatar over the fate of eight former naval officers sentenced to death for alleged espionage, will also avoid being overly critical of Qatari support to Hamas, where much of the group’s leadership is based. Qatar is also a key player in the negotiations with Israel over the hostage release and ceasefire in Gaza.