India’s Jerusalem Vote: How It Should Be Seen

by Syed Ata Hasnain - Dec 22, 2017 03:26 PM +05:30 IST
India’s Jerusalem Vote: How It Should Be Seen

The voting results are displayed on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly in which the US declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was declared ‘null and void’. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

  • All that India did is follow a large-scale international consensus which goes along with the original UN resolution that Jerusalem is neither the capital nor the territory of the two parties to the conflict.

A couple of things you need to know if you are angry about India voting against the United States (US) and Israel on the issue of recognition given to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the US under the Trump presidency.

First, it wasn’t Trump who was the first to moot such recognition; in 1995, the US Congress passed a law that the American embassy in Israel be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As goes with US laws, its non-implementation needs a presidential waiver every six months. Three presidents before Trump have issued such waivers. Even Trump signed the waiver last time, but this time around wavered on the waiver and chose not to sign it.

Second, under United Nations (UN) Resolution 181, Jerusalem was to have the status of ‘corpus separatum’, or a ‘separated body’, with a special legal and political status, administered by the UN. Admittedly, the Jewish community accepted the resolution, but the Palestinians did not. Since then, while the resolution remains alive, history has witnessed attempts to change the status by force on both sides. The international community at large does not give recognition to any change by force and recognises Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital.

Third, repeated attempts at resolving the Israel-Palestine discord have in the past come to naught. However, Trump during his presidential campaign promised to resolve the Israel-Palestine discord through an ‘ultimate deal’. He has never been averse to Israeli settlements in occupied territories and, therefore, the Palestinians have never really expected a solution from him.

Trump appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner as the envoy for the Middle East, and the latter has been in and out of Saudi Arabia. However, with the Israel-Palestine discord under no real pressure for immediate resolution and far more important issues related to the stabilisation of the Middle East at stake, how did this conflict get raked up to further complicate an already overflowing cauldron?

It is much to do with the Trump style of disruptive leadership. While sometimes such a style does trigger fresh approaches stemming against strongly established narratives which can hardly change, it is also a truism that without a combination of facilitating circumstances and factors, a disruptive style cannot work either. On a dispute as historical and deep-rooted as this, a trigger without an attempt to take others along does not work in serious diplomacy. Talmiz Ahmad, the former Indian envoy to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and a well-known expert on the Middle East, has in an interview averred the need for Trump to play the American-Jewish card along with that of the Evangelical Christian community in the US to garner electoral support in an era of his diminishing popularity. Even if we accept, or not, that argument, it’s a natural wonderment whether anyone in his team has thought through the situation and emerged with something so transformational that it will lead to an eventual ‘ultimate deal’. It was initially thought that Saudi and perhaps even Gulf Cooperation Council support for the move was already secured by Kushner. However, the condemnation by Saudi Arabia has put paid any such overhauling action.

Trump said, “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past. It is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Perhaps a matching statement of support for the Palestinian demand for its capital ultimately being East Jerusalem could have created room for more positivity. However, Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for the two-state arrangement and his support for the settlements will now only rake up Palestinian sentiments for more confrontation. The US embassy may not move in five years as a 91-acre plot allotted in Jerusalem has yet to be developed for construction. Or it could simply move to temporary premises to make a statement. Either way, the possibility of a positive process towards the ‘ultimate deal’ seems far.

Before looking at the Indian connection and the stance taken by India on the UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution, there may be a few interesting points of observation. The draft resolution rejecting the US move on Jerusalem had been vetoed in the UN Security Council by the US after 14 members voted in its favour before it was sent to the UNGA. The blatant US threat to cut off financial aid to nations voting for the motion did work to an extent with nine nations (mostly small South Pacific nations) supported the US. However, 35 nations abstained and 128 voted for the motion, including India.

In India, informed discourse will optimally judge the government’s support for the UNGA resolution, but with our emerging strategic partnership with the US and strong defence and technological relationship with Israel, there will be a trend towards disappointment and some dismay. The best way to view this, with strategic maturity, is the manner in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi approached the whole issue of balancing India’s relationship with the Gulf/Arab world and Israel from the time he came to power. He carefully nurtured the relationship with the former for three years and then visited Israel. The External Affairs Ministry has all along perfectly balanced these relationships which are both crucial.

India can never tire of remembering the strategic outcomes of both relationships. Energy, diaspora, Chahbahar (Iran too is important), remittances and cutting-edge technology, all are involved here. An issue-based approach which plays to our national interests, is essential as outlined by successive governments. After all, Israel and Iran remain sworn adversaries, but India has maintained a relationship with both. Besides, in the world of strategic diplomacy, just upfront attitudes don’t count; there is much which happens behind the scenes. Since 1992, when India established full diplomatic relations with Israel, there has been little change in our approach towards the Palestinian cause, and yet we have established a strong relationship with Israel. It is not as if the Jerusalem issue is going to blow up into a conflict tomorrow. All that India did is follow a large-scale international consensus which goes along with the original UN resolution that Jerusalem is neither the capital nor the territory of the two parties to the conflict. As to an abstention, which many on social media favoured, it may be prudent to be aware that a sudden change from support to abstention is akin to a major alteration of foreign policy; it is not as if not supporting either cause places India in a neutral dock.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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