The Indian stance on Palestine is a non-issue, specifically for Israel, which knows India’s views are mostly steeped in its own domestic politics.
In May, after a record three elections leading to no outcome between serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his competitor Benny Gantz, Israel finally got a power-sharing government pushed by a rapidly rising Covid-19 challenge. In this ‘Unity Deal’ between Netanyahu and Gantz, the former will serve as prime minister for 18 months with Gantz as his alternate. Both will swap roles, and cabinet positions, half way through.
Netanyahu fought his elections on his strongman reputation and rightwing politics, and his campaigns saw pictures of himself with leaders such as Donald Trump and Narendra Modi adorn the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. However, the Israeli prime minister has remained steadfast over his intent to annex the West Bank along with parts of the Jordan Valley, an idea backed by the White House earlier this year via President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, designed by his son-in-law Jarred Kushner who holds absolutely no expertise about the region. As per reports, the annexation operations could start as early as 1 July.
Tensions between Jerusalem and Amman have been rising due to the narrative of annexation, with Netanyahu dispatching the chief of MOSSAD, Yossi Cohen, to Jordan and meet King Abdullah regarding Israel’s intentions, which has received counter-threats by its neighbour. The proposed annexation will include vital agricultural and resource heavy land used by Palestinians as means of commerce and business. Mohammad Shtayyeh, Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) said that the annexation would be an existential threat, while Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki warned of ‘immediate and tangible repercussions.’
However, despite Netanyahu’s intent, reactions by Arab states have arguably been a little distant. When Trump and Netanyahu met to announce the Middle East peace plan at the White House in January of this year, the envoys of Oman, Bahrain and the UAE also were in attendance. Oman and the UAE have over the past few years developed levels of backdoor diplomacy with Israel. However, these new dialogue mechanisms are unofficial recognition of the reality of the Israeli state in the Arab world’s thinking. Netanyahu in October 2018 had paid a surprise visit to Muscat, taking advantage of Oman’s neutrality, and its bridges between the Arab world and Iran as cultivated by former monarch Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said.
The UAE as well has worked towards a more cohesive approach to Israel, seen as both a departure from the norm and perhaps an example of mutual coexistence. The UAE’s careful calibration of Israel arguably adds another wedge into the pre-conceived notion of ‘Arab solidarity,’ presented via forums such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Over the past few weeks, the UAE for the first time dispatched a plane between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, carrying medical supplies for Palestine in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. This happened despite Israel’s plans with regard to the West Bank, which Abu Dhabi has opposed, albeit without any major rhetoric. Netanyahu tried to take advantage of this opening, and proposed a partnership between Israel and the UAE in the fight against Covid-19, only to be downgraded by Abu Dhabi via a muted statement which distanced itself politically, but highlighted the commercial ties between companies of both states working against the pandemic.
While the Arab world’s growing examples of rapprochement with Israel largely tend to be argued via the lens of Iran, and the regional threat it poses, the changing economic designs of major regional Arab powers, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are also a critical factor. Abu Dhabi has shown a level of outreach to Iran itself, in attempts to protect its status as a major global financial and economic centre amidst the world’s most volatile region. Moreover, it is perhaps an accepted fact within the UAE’s leadership that Washington’s security umbrella is not enough anymore, and a direct line to Tehran itself may be a more fruitful pressure valve. Between March and June, the UAE has sent four planes carrying aid to Iran, specifically during the initial period of the outbreak when dozens of medical staff died in the country due to Covid-19.
Within the GCC itself, how to deal with Iran may today become more of a contested issue than the group members being united by a black and white view of the Iranian threat. The Saudi–UAE spat with Qatar pushed Doha closer to Iran and Turkey. Qatar, which has been isolated by both the UAE and Saudi within the GCC for what they believe were actions by Doha against their own interests, has been at times more proactive on the Palestine cause than other Arab states, causing even further divisions. Scholar Elizabeth Tsurkov highlights these changes as a set of “new priorities” for the Gulf monarchs, which meant, “neglecting the Palestinian cause that has become increasingly marginal, not just in Arab, but increasingly international discourse in the past decade.” Both Gulf and Western scholars have highlighted that the Palestine issue is not just a crisis in the Gulf, but is also used by the region’s powers to further their own agendas and mandates as well, specifically when it comes to exerting pressure on Israel via Western capitals.
An Israeli move to annex West Bank right now may well be a catastrophe of a different kind, with Covid-19 still very much an ongoing global pandemic, and possibility of complications between Israel, Jordan, Egypt as well as others looming large. The Indian government has remained distant from the issue, being pre-occupied with multiple political hurdles both domestically and in the neighbourhood. However, it remains to be seen what New Delhi would say if it is pushed to comment on Netanyahu’s annexation plans. India, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also found a good friend in Netanyahu’s Israel, the rightwing politics of both countries finding common ground. Nonetheless, the most tangible outreach for Modi has been with the Gulf, specifically the UAE, which is prepared to invest billions of dollars in the Indian economy. Here as well, the Indian stance on Palestine is a non-issue, specifically for Israel, which knows India’s views are mostly steeped in its own domestic politics. Nonetheless, Modi has not made any overt changes in India’s posture on the issue of Palestine. Even when he became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in 2017, the tour was preceded by the visit of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to New Delhi. Modi then visited Ramallah in February 2018, a low-key visit that played down the high significance of this outreach considering the Hindu-nationalist background of his party, the BJP. However, it makes it that much more kite-flying of Indian moral and ethical standing with the Palestinian cause as part of its foreign policy if the Arab states themselves have grown apart from the issue. Meanwhile, it is the Palestinians that increasingly find themselves stuck in a revolving door of global and regional geopolitics, with no clear way out.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +