Palestine’s Strongest UN Ally?

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Palestine’s Strongest UN Ally?

India has already expressed backing for the Palestinian bid for UN membership. But how much will this hurt ties with Israel?

With India’s ascension to the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member in January 2011, attention has inevitably focused on New Delhi’s positions on key international issues. India has already had to take a stance on thorny issues such as Libya and Syria. But the Palestinian bid for statehood at this week’s UN General Assembly is arguably the trickiest issue of all facing the international community.

With its history of support for Palestinian-related resolutions at the United Nations, it shouldn’t be surprising that India has already expressed support for the Palestinian bid. India’s backing was conveyed by Deputy Foreign Minister E. Ahamed in a meeting with the Palestinian Ambassador to India on August 11. Nabeel Shaath, former Palestinian foreign minister and special envoy of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also met with Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna during his visit to India last month to canvas for Indian support for the Palestinian plan. At the time, the External Affairs Ministry ‘reiterated India’s strong and unwavering support to the Palestinian cause and assured that India shall continue to adhere to its principled stand on Palestine.’

Such support goes back a long way. India was the first non-Arab state to recognise Palestine in 1988, and New Delhi has supported Non-Aligned Movement-sponsored resolutions on the need for the expeditious establishment of a Palestinian state. In addition, India also co-sponsored and voted in favour of a draft resolution at the United Nations on February 18 that termed Israeli settlement policies ‘illegal.’ India’s Explanation of Vote affirmed that India’s decision was ‘consistent with our long-standing position of solidarity with the Palestinian people and our position that the settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under international law…’ That resolution was, however, vetoed by the United States – the first such veto by the Obama administration.

Given that the upcoming move by the Palestinians would be a unilateral effort seeking statehood, it’s worth noting that Ahamed, in a speech on the occasion of ‘International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People’ on January 28, urged a ‘negotiated solution resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united state of Palestine living within secure and recognized borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, side by side and at peace with Israel as endorsed in the Quartet Roadmap and United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1397 & 1515’ (emphasis added).

The Palestinians for their part claim that more than 140 countries have expressed support for their bid. However, in order for their efforts to bear fruit they need the support of the Security Council. And, among the veto-wielding powers, the United States has been vigorously opposed to such a bid, with Obama stating that such a move would be ‘counter-productive.’ The French Foreign Minister has warned that it could lead to a ‘serious diplomatic crisis.’ Russia and China, meanwhile, have indicated that they will support the bid. British Prime Minister David Cameron, in an interview with Al-Jazeera on September 9, affirmed that Britain does ‘support the ambition of the Palestinians to have statehood,’ but nevertheless insisted that ‘it’s not the UN that can confer statehood on the Palestinians. The only way statehood is going to happen is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to sit down and negotiate and agree the terms of the Israeli state and the Palestinian state.’

Israel’s position is far more clear-cut. It has warned of serious repercussions, including the annulment of all agreements with the PNA such as on security cooperation and over issues such as the sharing of water and also trade. Abbas has insisted that the Palestinian bid for statehood is part of an effort to seek international support for their legitimate cause, yet special envoys from the United States (David Hale and Dennis Ross), EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton and Middle East Quartet Representative Tony Blair have in recent days visited the region in an effort to persuade the Palestinians to give up their bid and return to the negotiating table.

With all this in mind, what impact will India’s support for the Palestinian bid have on India-Israel relations? It’s worth noting that India’s history of support for the Palestinian cause is acknowledged and accepted by Israel and the United States, a fact highlighted by diplomatic communications revealed by WikiLeaks, as well as statements of key officials like former Middle East Special Envoy Chinmaya Gharekhan.

India’s recent statements should therefore have surprised no-one. Israeli policy makers have, of course, previously expressed the view that India should have ‘acted with more discretion’ when it endorsed the UN-mandated Goldstone report (which investigated Israeli and Hamas actions during Operation Cast Lead) at the United Nations in October 2009. But given that Israel is currently looking extremely isolated in its immediate neighbourhood, especially with countries like Turkey and Egypt, it will likely find it difficult to lambast India on an issue that has such broad support among UN members.

Still, while India’s support for the Palestinian bid isn’t likely to affect the robust defence ties (worth more than $9 billion) and economic relations (annual bilateral trade is about $5 billion), it could raise the stakes on any wider engagement.

Regardless, whatever the outcome of the Palestinian bid to become the newest and 194th UN member state, we’re clearly at a fork in the road as far as this seemingly intractable issue is concerned. Whether the effort will lead to a further hardening of positions and the empowering of radical elements in each camp, or whether it will facilitate a return to the negotiating process, remains to be seen.

S. Samuel C. Rajiv is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.