Israel-Palestine conflict and the isolation of India

Are we losing the respect of the Global South because Modi refuses to distance himself from Israel?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi embraces Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: National Herald archives)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi embraces Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: National Herald archives)

Ashis Ray

India’s, and more particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s, much-trumpeted claim at the G20 Summit in New Delhi in September last year to stewardship of the Global South lies in tatters. India’s abstention in last week’s United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) vote on Israel has finally accomplished this.

The resolution read: ‘The Council demands that Israel, the occupying power, end its occupation of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem; also demands that Israel immediately lift its blockade on the Gaza Strip and all other forms of collective punishment, calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, for immediate emergency humanitarian access and assistance, and for the urgent restoration of basic necessities to the Palestinian population in Gaza…’

A just position on the Israel–Palestine conflict has long been a cornerstone of India’s worldview. While this had frayed since Narendra Modi took power in 2014, his hasty and partisan tweet within hours of Hamas attacking Israel’s military and intelligence-gathering installations and killing civilians on 7 October 2023 was a body blow to India’s hitherto fair and equitable approach.

Every Asian member country in the UNHRC other than India and Japan — which has historically, since its surrender in World War II, toed the United States’ line on international affairs — voted in favour of the motion: Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Maldives, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.

Yet the Modi administration chose to remain noncommittal about Benjamin Netanyahu’s regime, which has killed 33,000 Palestinians—two-thirds of them women and children—in its ‘retaliation’ against Hamas and is not far from being accused of genocide or war crimes or both at the International Criminal Court.

Critically, Modi’s steadfast support of Israel in the circumstances potentially weakens India’s argument that Pakistan is illegally occupying a part of Jammu and Kashmir, which acceded to India in 1947. Neutral powers may well ask: How can Pakistan’s occupation be wrong if Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is right?                 

Piloted by Jawaharlal Nehru and persevered with under Indira Gandhi, India’s foreign policy was widely revered to the extent of it being granted the mantle of leadership of the Global South. Whether it was in the form of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) or the Group of 77 or more specifically India’s pivotal role in ending apartheid in South Africa, New Delhi moved with the times in those times, rarely putting a foot wrong.

NAM was a peaceful response to the Cold War that broke out between the East and the West, between communism and capitalism, in the aftermath of World War II. Newly independent India decided it would not take sides in the bitter confrontation and would remain equidistant from the two warring factions.

The United States and western Europe, especially the Republican administration of President Richard Nixon, misunderstood this. Indeed, they adopted a hostile attitude towards India as a result. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, gradually came to appreciate India’s principled position.

Through the Indian government’s unshackling of Goa from Portuguese colonisation in 1961 to the 1971 war with Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh, Moscow increasingly stood by India.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989, India’s economic reforms of 1991 and its establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 generated enthusiasm in the West. This prompted P.V. Narasimha Rao to switch to a policy of multi-alignment in a unipolar world dominated by the US. But the rights of Palestine were neither forsaken nor forgotten.

The state of Israel was a 1948 Anglo-American imposition on the nation of Palestine to divert Jewish refugees from Europe heading for Britain and the US to their Biblical ‘Promised Land’.

It was both controversial and questionable, notwithstanding the United Nations prescribing an independent state of Palestine to assuage the locals. Nehru endorsed this, while Indira Gandhi welcomed a Palestine Liberation Organization office in Delhi as far back as 1975, granting it full diplomatic status in 1980.

Apart from a significant ideological tilt under Modi, India’s vulnerability vis-à-vis Israel stems from the latter being a key supplier of military hardware, including radars, surveillance and combat drones and missiles. Reuters reported in February: ‘Israel’s military exports to India, its largest defence buyer, have not been affected by the war in Gaza, an Indian source and an Israeli source aware of the details said.’

Israel is also suspected of having sold the Pegasus spyware to the Modi government to snoop on political opponents. The Congress party’s election manifesto — its ‘Nyay Patra’ released last week — has pledged to probe this allegation.

Does Netanyahu’s cooperation with India extend to helping Modi remain in power? One would hope not, though whispers of such interference abound. The more relevant question is: how long will Netanyahu himself last in power?

It has previously been stressed in these columns that Israeli prime ministers who preside over a security failure of the kind that occurred on 7 October do not survive for long. Therefore, it is probably a matter of time before Netanyahu is forced to step down. An Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) poll elicited that 57 per cent of Israelis rate his handling of the aftermath of the 7 October crisis as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

Crucially, while he has come down on the Palestinians like a ton of bricks, he has failed to secure the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas—more than 130 of them are still to return—a sore point for their families. 

Even partners in Netanyahu’s Zionist ultra-conservative coalition—the most right-wing in Israel’s history—are unhappy with him: his political rival Benny Gantz dented the unity of the current government by calling for early elections.

He might, if further dissatisfied, engineer a collapse of the alliance.

The IDI survey also found 51 per cent of Israelis want elections to be brought forward from the scheduled autumn of 2026.

More decisively, it isn’t good news for Netanyahu that US President Joe Biden finally rather firmly ticked him off, following which the latter has withdrawn all Israeli troops from southern Gaza, which could signal the gradual fizzling out of the Israeli counter-offensive. (What the deaths of 33,000 Palestinians did not trigger, the killing of one American national foreign aid worker among six has!)

Netanyahu has bought himself some time by acquiescing to Biden’s demand. He knows that relinquishing office also exposes him to prosecution for long-pending corruption charges.

Yet, even a subtle indication from the United States—on which Israel is heavily dependent for military aid—that it would prefer a leadership change could instigate Netanyahu’s downfall. 

Ashis Ray can be found on X @ashiscray

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