How Likely Is India to Play a Mediating Role in Israeli-Palestinian Peace? Not Really

Hasan Alhasan

In a joint press conference marking Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wasted little time in delivering his main message. Having bemoaned US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a decision he said was responsible for “blocking the horizons for a political solution,” Abbas called upon India to play a leading part in a multi-state sponsored peace process. Abbas reminded Modi of India’s leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and its historic support for the Palestinian cause, a legacy Modi paid tribute to at the mausoleum of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, more popularly known in India by his nom de guerre Abu Ammar.

Abbas’s hopes, however, are misplaced. While recognizing India’s historic support for the Palestinian cause, Modi visibly declined to acknowledge Abbas’s plea for an Indian role in a reinvigorated, multi-state sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Instead of addressing the peace process, the status of Jerusalem or the right of return of Palestinian refugees, Modi spoke at length of a technology park and a diplomatic institute that India hopes to build in Ramallah. The closest Modi came in his remarks to addressing Abbas’s concerns was to emphasize the importance of “achieving security for all.”

Many Arabs, including I suspect Abbas, remember India’s support for the Palestinian cause from the days of the Cold War. At the time of Palestine’s partition by the UN in 1947, India was among a handful of nations that objected to Western nations’ plan, proposing the creation of an independent federal Palestinian state instead. As leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, India brandished the slogan of third world solidarity and the Palestinian cause. India was among the first set of countries to recognize Palestinian statehood in 1988, eventually conferring full diplomatic privileges to Palestinian representatives. For over four decades, India was among a minority of non-Arab or Muslim nations that refused to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

In 1992, however, India became the third major country in a span of a few months to begin diplomatic relations with Israel, joining Russia and China. Times had changed. The Cold War had ended three years prior, and India, desperate to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund, hoped to win over US support by normalizing relations with Israel. Yet, successive Indian governments were still careful to project balance in their relations with Israel and Palestine out of fear of angering Arab states, alienating the domestic Muslim constituency and opening themselves to criticism from the Indian political left.

That is, until the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. Under the former BJP government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Indo-Israeli relations flourished. In 2003, India received Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a man considered by many, especially in the Arab world, as a war criminal. In fact, the BJP, to which Modi belongs, subscribes to a family of right-wing Hindu groups, often referred to as the Sangh Parivar, whose fascination with Israel runs deep. The Hindu nationalists identify with Israel’s project for an ethnically pure state, share its fear of an Islamist threat and admire its success despite being surrounded by enemies.

Since assuming office, Modi has pushed for a policy of “de-hyphenation” of India’s relations with Israel and Palestine. On the face of it, de-hyphenation implies that India would pursue bilateral relations with each party separately, without tying its policy on Israel to the Palestinian issue or vice versa. But for now, Modi appears to have failed to live up entirely to his new policy, as the optics of balance continue to inform his diplomatic manoeuvring; his visits to Tel Aviv in 2017 and Ramallah earlier this month were both the first of their kind for an Indian prime minister.

Beyond optics, however, de-hyphenation seems to carry some potentially serious implications for India’s position on the Isreali-Palestinian conflict. It suggests that India under Modi, whom Netanyahu hailed during a visit to New Delhi in January as a “revolutionary leader,” will not slow down its engagement with Israel on account of Palestinian sentiment. Although India joined 127 other countries in supporting a UN resolution condemning Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, it avoided taking a strong stance on the subject. India may have also felt secure in the knowledge that its vote was unlikely to provoke a diplomatic rift with Tel Aviv, especially given Israel’s diplomatic isolation.

Unfortunately for Abbas, effective mediation depends in large part on a willingness to hold responsible those who, like Netanyahu, seem determined to undermine the peace process. Neither Abbas nor the Palestinians, however, should expect Modi to call out Netanyahu on his government’s disastrous policies towards the Palestinians any time soon.

Hasan Alhasan is a PhD researcher at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where his work focuses on Indian foreign policy in the Middle East. Previously, he served as a senior analyst at the office of the first deputy prime minister of Bahrain.