In keeping with its historical tilt towards the Arabs, India voted in favour of the United Nations resolution that called on the United States to reverse its decision recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and consequently refrain from transferring its embassy from Tel Aviv to the city. Besides India, 127 countries voted in favour of the resolution, including the four permanent members of the UN Security Council, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran; 35 countries, including Canada and Mexico, abstained, and 21 countries were absent during the vote. Only seven countries stood by Israel and the United States to vote against the resolution. Just three days earlier, the Security Council had voted 14-1 against the US decision.
These resolutions are non-binding and meaningless in compelling the United States to accept international opinion. However, the voting indicates just how internationally isolated the Donald Trump administration has become over the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The landslide result came even as the United States had earlier threatened to curtail foreign aid to the countries that voted in favour of the resolution. Tellingly, the United States was abandoned by its staunchest long-term allies during the vote in the Security Council as well as the General Assembly. Even among the 28 NATO countries, no one voted with the United States and six abstained.
It is worth reiterating as many analysts not given to histrionics and I have in earlier articles that the US declaration is neither illegal nor does it change anything on the ground. First, the United States has left it to the Israelis and Palestinians to decide upon the boundaries of Jerusalem themselves, and second, the US embassy is being shifted to a neighbourhood in western Jerusalem – a portion of the city that has been the capital of Israel since December 13, 1949. It is only the status of East Jerusalem that is in dispute, but hypocritically only after 1967 when it came under Israeli possession and not 1948 when it was occupied by Jordan and Jews denied access to their holy sites.
This is not the place to get into the wrongs of India’s policy towards international Jewry in the 20th century before 1948 and Israel since. In any case, Delhi’s relations with Jerusalem have seen a sharp uptick since Narendra Modi took office in 2014 and India has been less reticent about its relations with Israel. Political rhetoric has been effusive about the “natural partnership” between the two states and highlighted cooperation particularly in critical areas such as defence, counter-terrorism, water management, and agriculture. India’s decision to vote with the UN resolution despite this bonhomie, though not surprising, is nevertheless unfortunate.
India had taken a noncommittal stance last fortnight when Trump first announced that the United States would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Ministry of External Affairs released a statement that Indian interests and policy would not be dictated by third parties. This position was reiterated a week later by India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, MJ Akbar, to the Arab League. It seems that Delhi finally buckled under the tremendous pressure from the Arab world to change its vote back to its traditional pattern.
It is not that India had no other options. Even if it did not wish to overtly side with Israel, it could have stayed true to its earlier stated position by abstaining from the vote or, better still, being absent for it. As Josef Broz Tito told Jawaharlal Nehru on the sidelines of the first Non-Aligned Movement summit in Belgrade in 1961, it is not necessary to take a position on every single issue that comes up. India’s warm words for Israel and its embassy in Tel Aviv would have allowed Delhi to straddle this divide masterfully but it was not to be.
One might argue that India’s vote is meaningless in terms of the global picture as well as in its bilateral relations with the United States and Israel. This is wishful thinking. While it is certainly true that India’s vote is meaningless in the broad scheme of things, it is more an indication of its weak diplomatic heft supported by a minor economy and even smaller military capability. To top it off, Delhi has no history of leadership in the Middle East. To conclude from this that India’s vote will not be noticed by Washington or Jerusalem, however, is folly.
The vote in a non-binding resolution may in and of itself be trivial but it fits a long and well-established pattern of voting against the United States and Israel. Yet another such vote indicates to both capitals that Delhi has not yet transformed into the rising world power they had hoped to see. India’s misstep at the United Nations might not attract an immediate and specific response but it will cool enthusiasm for greater trust and trade in sensitive technology and practices. Delhi’s signal that it remains the unreliable hedging power is no way to win friends and influence strategic partners, especially when India needs their help to fuel its economy and and military capabilities. India’s vote was important as that of a rising power but if, like China, it does not contribute to the existing world order, there is no reason for present powers to commit to its rise either.
It is ironic that India would like US and Israeli support on Kashmir but is not willing to even remain out of the fray – at no cost to it – on an equally emotive issue for them. Delhi seems to be sorely lacking in its understanding of diplomatic give-and-take, be it on the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement, trade agreements, joint military operations, or diplomatic undertakings. As the intractable hedge, Delhi reduces its own ability to influence states and leverage its assets for strategic gains.
This may be partly due to hubris among India’s leaders that their market is so large and increasingly prosperous that it is indispensable to salivating Western capitalists. The nuclear energy sector was a rude shock to such claptrap as company after Western company stayed away from the Indian market until the government finally stepped in to sufficiently assuage their concerns about India’s unconventional laws. Similarly, any sense of over-confidence India may have in its inherent worth would do well to get a reality check.
The usual argument trotted out to urge caution and status quo in India’s Middle East policy is that there are close to eight million Indians working in the Persian Gulf and they remit close to $35 billion annually to India. Yet if Delhi allows this to remain its primary criterion in deciding Middle East policy, it has effectively given the Gulf Cooperation Council a veto on its decision-making process. Additionally, these remittances are based on the Gulf economies and are hardly some sort of annual stipend for India. Delicate economic ties will not be snapped as easily as some analysts warn because the Gulf states also need an agreeable workforce; as a large customer, a minor diversification by India of its hydrocarbon acquisition can affect Gulf ledgers and is effective counter leverage.
There is no doubt that Washington’s threat that “it will take names” came across as crass and may have had an effect opposite to the one desired on many countries. With dwindling US aid and other financing options opening up, Trump was caught up in his own mini-1945 European Recovery Programme (ERP) time warp. For India, however, the threat need not have applied – its interests genuinely align significantly with those of Israel and the United States and there was no reason to stick a nay vote in their craw. The MEA’s failure to understand how international alliances work – however fluid and transient – is becoming one of India’s greatest liabilities.