India walks an oft-treaded path in the Middle East

Hamas rockets raining down on Israel from Gaza. Israel conducting massive aerial bombardment of Gaza. For the first time, Israeli cities with mixed populations are witnessing communal violence. As the old Israel-Palestine conflict burst forth in a barrage of fire last week is it déjà vu or a new chapter in an intractable conflict, and does it preclude a political solution?

The Arab world is stunned, angry, embarrassed, uncomfortable. Iran is angry and vehement, engaged in a proxy war to the death with Israel. The US is stuck with a decades-old problem they’re trying desperately to put behind them. They want out of the Middle East — they need it less, having become a major energy producer themselves; their strategic challenge now is so they can concentrate on China and Asia.

For Israel, It’s an existential war, a just war against terrorism, against a persistent threat of annihilation that terror groups like Hamas regularly belt out. Both Hamas, and Hezbollah have vowed armed struggle against the Jewish state, which invites equal and opposite reaction from Israel. As some analysts put it, it is a battle to “negate” the identity of the other side. A political solution therefore is far fetched, certainly at this point in time.

The Palestinians themselves have moved from being a global cause to a virtually stateless people trying desperately to save a strip of land — a global promise to achieve a two-state solution has really not gone anywhere. The world has moved on to other issues, they have been left holding the can, and a bunch of Islamist terror groups. The problem is the same in 2021 as it was in 2014, 2001 or the 1980s. The question is, will the world put a band-aid on it and continue on its way, or can everybody put their heads together for a solution?

The timeline of the current conflict has been well documented — Palestinian protest against Israeli forces at Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount, Hamas getting into the act after Mahmoud Abbas delayed planned elections; rocket attacks into Tel Aviv by Hamas, Israeli retaliation; communal violence in several Israeli cities, with the epicentre at Lod; followed by an exponential increase in violence. There have been calls for ceasefire, US president Joe Biden too has said he would “support” a ceasefire. But the US has thrice vetoed UN Security Council statement against Israel or call for a ceasefire. Washington has tried to bring in Egypt and Qatar to rein in Hamas and begin negotiations with Israel. So far, such efforts have been futile. Israel does not believe the time has yet come to obey any calls for ceasefire, at least until their military dominance has been fully established. Within Israeli domestic politics too, the conflict has served to cement Benjamin Netanyahu’s political position — Israel may be heading for its fifth general election in two years.

What lies behind the current flare-up? The immediate trigger of violence at the Al Aqsa/Temple Mount is the most immediate one. The expression by Arab Israelis speaks to a deeper discontent. But Hamas actions could have an Iranian footprint — putting Israel and US on the backfoot before nuclear negotiations. It could also be intended to tear up the Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab powers, and the strain is showing. It certainly puts Hamas in a more dominant political position over Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority. Some analysts have speculated whether the rocket barrage was also intended to test Israel’s Iron Dome, particularly if Hezbollah were to shoot off rockets against Israel as well, which they have stockpiled. On a bigger canvas, the violence could also be intended to keep the US mired in the Middle East, never being able to actually lighten its footprint there. The implications will be important for global politics.

India has had to walk a familiar diplomatic tightrope during this crisis. In a statement in the UN Security Council by the Indian Permanent Representative. T.S. Tirumurti, made essentially three points: condemning the rocket attacks by Hamas, seeing Israeli bombardment as retaliation, and de-hyphenating India’s support for the Palestinian “cause” from its condemnation of terrorism emanating from Palestinian Territories.

But, that created its own storm. Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted a thanks to a rash of countries who he said stood by Israel, India was not among therm. Within India, the traditionalists, including MEA mandarins, bemoaned a statement they said leaned too far in favour of Israel, and not enough towards Palestine. Indian Twitterverse was overwhelmingly on the side of Israel, and critical of the government for not openly supporting it. Similar views have been expressed by the ruling party.

Modi government’s instinctive affinity remains with Israel. But in recent years, Modi has also gone out of his way to befriend the Arab world — again, India’s close partners are Oman, UAE and Saudi Arabia, followed by Bahrain and Kuwait. So the government felt that some balancing was called for.

However, India’s fudging on the timeline of the conflict, that it did not seem to condemn Hamas enough, or stand more openly with Israel has received some pushback. Expect to see some changes in India’s posture in the coming days.

It was much easier in the olden days when India was squarely on the side of the Palestinians. But Israel is now one of India’s closest strategic/security/defense/development partners. Israel has tremendous equity in the Indian popular opinion, and the current ruling dispensation has openly embraced Israel, with prime minister narendra Modi being the first Indian PM to actually visit Israel. Modi visited Palestine too, in a stand-alone visit signalling the de-hyphenation.

Since 2014 which saw the last round of this conflict, the geopolitical picture of the Middle East itself has changed, introducing new forces, equations and realities. As Walter Russell Mead points out, “new re­al­i­ties are Arab power in the Mid­dle East is in pre­cip­i­tous de­cline; Iran and Turn­key have be­come ma­jor ac­tors; and Wash­ing­ton is do­ing its best to re­duce its mil­i­tary foot­print. These changes have cre­ated a strate­gic align­ment be­tween Is­rael and a bloc of con­ser­v­a­tive Arab states, in­clud­ing Egypt and much of the Gulf. That align­ment has cut the ground out from un­der Mah­moud Ab­bas and the Pales­tin­ian Au­thor­ity and pushed Hamas and other rad­i­cal groups in the Pales­tin-ian move­ment closer to Iran.”

Iran has become the fulcrum of Middle east politics — engaged in sectarian Islamic ideological wars with Saudi Arabia and some Sunni powers, particularly in Yemen; sometimes aligned with Qatar against Saudi Arabia and UAE; on one side of the Persian-Arabic faultline; caught in an existential battle with Israel, arming and supporting terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah; under crippling sanctions by the West, yet undeterred in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran has inserted itself in almost every major geopolitical conflict in the region, even as its economy has tanked, but it has leveraged its size, energy reserves and an enormous appetite for exercise of power to stay important.

On the other side, Saudi Arabia has shrunk as a power — in an era of climate change, its oil reserves are losing their cache, particularly with the US. As Iran has loomed as the regional enemy, Saudi Arabia has grown closer to UAE and, in recent years, Israel, united against Iran and it’s sponsored armed groups, whether they are Houthi, Hamas or Hezbollah.

Much more important, the US feels less invested in the Middle East, especially as its importance as a source of energy has diminished. The US is happy to sell weapons to both sides, but little more. Much has Joe Biden has tried to reverse Donald Trump’s actions, he has not moved to return the US embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv. Biden may have shown Netanyahu some tough love privately (after all, Netanyahu was much closer to the Trump guys) but has publicly supported Israel and its actions as legitimate. But Biden’s political colleagues in the Democratic Party are not as enthusiastic about Israel as they used to be, certainly not the progressive coterie of young and vocal Congressmen/women. If the conflict doesn’t end soon, this could become a problem later.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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