By Sumit Ganguly and Nicolas Blarel
Images of burnt-out cars, collapsing buildings and hapless children standing amidst ruins have been the staple in newspapers and television for the past week as Israelis and Palestinians engage in yet another sanguinary slugfest. Neither side, at the time of writing, seems especially interested in de-escalating the crisis. Appeals from the United Nations for a ceasefire have gone unheeded as the death toll on both sides keeps mounting.
While the United States has sent a low-level envoy to the two warring parties, it has mostly given Israel substantial leeway to respond militarily to Hamas’s rocket barrages. Under these circumstances, it is hard to visualise how it can play the role of an honest broker. Nor, for that matter, do the major West European powers, let alone the People’s Republic of China or Russia, have the requisite political capital to enter the fray with their good offices.
Given these prevailing political conditions India, which has long enjoyed extensive ties to the Palestinian movement and has more than a working rapport with the Netanyahu government, may find itself in a unique position to mediate an end to this crisis. India had forged ties with Palestinian nationalists since the 1920s given a common struggle against British imperialism. It was then the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as “the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” in 1974 and a PLO office was set up in New Delhi in 1975, with full diplomatic relations established in March 1980.
India was also the first non-Arab country to recognise the state of Palestine when it was proclaimed in November 1988. Today, it remains one of the biggest donors to the UN Reliefs and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
While India formally recognised the state of Israel in 1950, it waited until 1992 to establish full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Since then, ties have expanded dramatically. Today Israel is one of India’s main military suppliers and an important partner in key sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, and AI-based technologies. Over the last two decades, India has developed close strategic ties with Israel, while maintaining its strong support for the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution, which was reiterated again on May 17.
Consequently, the prospect of Indian mediation is hardly chimerical as there exist significant historical precedents. For example, India, under PM Jawaharlal Nehru, had roundly condemned the joint Anglo-French-Israeli operation against Egypt in 1956 following the closure of the Suez Canal under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, it had not limited itself to issuing a sharp diplomatic demarche.
Instead, it had sought to actively defuse the crisis through extensive consultations with all the relevant parties and especially Anthony Eden, the British premier, and of course, President Nasser. India’s involvement came at a great cost, since the Egyptian gamble of abruptly nationalising the Suez Canal in 1956 and the ensuing crisis and closing of the Canal undermined India’s economic and trade interests, as it was still dependent on this important line of communication for its exports to and imports from Europe.
After the crisis had abated, India emerged as an important contributor to the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) charged with the maintenance of the ceasefire. Major-General Indar Jit Rikhye, of the Indian army, commanded this force until the onset of the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, when it was forced to withdraw, following Indian casualties in the initial crossfire.
Since India has maintained ties with the Palestinian national movement since the 1970s and has simultaneously cultivated a strong diplomatic partnership with Israel for three decades, it may be in a unique position to serve as a viable interlocutor in this crisis. Given its unusual standing, neither party is likely to view an Indian diplomatic overture designed to defuse the crisis with widespread suspicion.
India’s possible role in peacemaking in the region may be a far cry from the one it played in the 1950s and 1960s. However, given the seeming inability or unwillingness of other great powers to enter the fray, India may well be poised to return to a part that it played with some dexterity in an earlier era.
Sumit Ganguly holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations at Indiana University, Bloomington. Nicolas Blarel is Associate Professor at the Institute of Political Science at Leiden University
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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