India walks the tightrope, again

In East Jerusalem, tensions run barely below the surface at the best of times. During Ramadan, the slightest provocation can lead to a conflagration. This year, there was plenty: the barricading by Israeli police of the steps outside Damascus Gate, where Palestinians gather for the iftaar meal and, recently, to protest; the attempted eviction of Palestinian families—1948 refugees settled there by Jordan in the fifties—from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood; the impending Jerusalem Day march celebrating the 1967 Israeli takeover; and violent clashes in the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam. Mob violence erupted, on an unprecedented scale, in mixed Arab-Jewish towns inside Israel. Hamas, frustrated by the cancellation of elections by the Palestinian Authority, grabbed the opportunity to project itself as the great Palestinian protector. It unleashed hundreds of rockets from Gaza, sending Israelis to bomb shelters, including in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and severely testing Israel’s Iron Dome defences. Israel’s retaliation was swift and characteristically heavy, aimed to cripple Hamas’ infrastructure. Civilians, including women and children, as usual, were collateral damage.


The UN Security Council predictably failed to issue a statement, blocked by the default pro-Israel US stand. India’s position was stated by Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti in a deftly-drafted statement that balanced, to the extent credibly possible, India’s strategic ties with Israel and our traditional support for the Palestinian cause. For the Palestinians, the statement draws a causal link from events in East Jerusalem to the broader conflict. Further, it speaks against any change in status quo in East Jerusalem and its neighbourhood—a clear reference to settler aggression in the area—and in the holy places, particularly the Haram al Sharif/ Temple Mount, presently administered by Jordan. For Israel, the statement condemns the ‘indiscriminate’ rocket fire by Hamas and characterises Israeli strikes as ‘retaliatory’. It condemns ‘all acts of violence, provocation, incitement and destruction’ without singling out Israel for disproportionate destruction or civilian deaths. The statement will not fully please either side, which is as it should be.


The tonal discord between bilateral India-Israel ties and our multilateral positions is a reality. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, Israel has become a close partner in defence, security, telecommunications, counter-terrorism, agriculture and water, and has been responsive to India’s needs, including during the pandemic. Israel would like to see this warmth, espoused at the highest political levels, reflected in India’s multilateral positions. To some extent, India has obliged, abstaining on some anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council, dropping the reference to East Jerusalem as ‘the capital of the Palestinian State’ from some documents and balancing statements, as in the present case. But that’s as far as India can go: its support for the Palestinian cause is not only deeply rooted in its value-loaded early foreign policy—India was the first non-Arab country to recognise the State of Palestine in 1988—but also in realpolitik concerns, given our Muslim population and relations with the Arab bloc. For the most part, Israel understands this predicament and rarely goes beyond polite proforma protests; the maturity of the relationship lies in boxing these differences and letting bilateral ties flourish.


For the foreseeable future, India’s tightrope walk will continue because the conflict is going nowhere. An uneasy peace will return, both sides having made their political points—Hamas has convincingly shown its muscle and Bibi Netanyahu has bounced back as Israel’s strongman, staving off political threats as well as a possible trip to prison. But a meaningful dialogue and resolution are a far cry. Neither side has leaders with the capacity, or the will, to make the fundamental concessions required for a two-state solution, and the US is no longer an honest broker. The core issues—Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security—are frozen; aggressive settlement activity has ensured that there is little land left for peace. The option of One-State is looming but nobody wants to make eye contact with it, lest it become real.