Analysis of India's voting patterns on Israel-Palestine issues at the United Nations - Hindustan Times
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Analysis of India's voting patterns on Israel-Palestine issues at the United Nations

Mar 21, 2024 12:06 AM IST

While the India-Israel relationship has gone from strength to strength, India’s support of UN resolutions critical of Israel has remained largely unchanged

India’s relationship with Israel has historically been linked to its principled stand on Palestine, which necessarily required it to maintain distance from Tel Aviv, even as both states established diplomatic ties under PV Narasimha Rao in 1992. Since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014 with a Lok Sabha majority on its own, the India-Israel relationship emerged out of its dormancy and received greater attention. Through the last decade, India has shown an increasing willingness to partner with Israel on key bilateral and multilateral economic initiatives, along with a steady growth in defence cooperation. In 2017, PM Modi became the first Indian PM to visit Israel (even as he became the first PM to visit Palestine, in 2018).

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield listens as Algerian Ambassador to the UN Amar Bendjama speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on the Israel-Hamas war, at UN Headquarters in New York City on February 20, 2024 (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP)(AFP)
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield listens as Algerian Ambassador to the UN Amar Bendjama speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on the Israel-Hamas war, at UN Headquarters in New York City on February 20, 2024 (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP)(AFP)

Evidently, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government felt comfortable breaking new ground in foreign policy even as it maintained India’s traditional support for the two-state solution. For India, its principled stand on Palestine was now distinct from its bilateral relationship with Israel. In the immediate wake of Hamas’ October 7, 2023 attacks, India abstained from a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution calling for a ceasefire. India, which sought to separate its stand on terrorism from other issues, stood alone in the Global South in not voting in favour of a ceasefire, as a Canada-led amendment to condemn Hamas in the resolution had failed earlier. This provided more grist for the India-Israel mill. However, two months later (with the death toll in Gaza crossing 20,000 by then), India abandoned this position, voting in favour of a ceasefire in December, even though this resolution largely mirrored that of October (and did not explicitly condemn Hamas). Later in December, India’s vote in favour of a UNGA resolution condemning Israeli settlements in Palestine also made headlines.

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A look at India’s voting history at the UNGA specifically across the last 10 years reveals that New Delhi’s growing closeness to Tel Aviv under the Modi government has grown despite its long-held position of a two-state solution, across various resolutions pertaining to Israel at the international body.

The general pattern

Between 2014 and 2023, India at the UNGA participated in key discussions, and voted on pertinent resolutions, on the question of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Each year, the UNGA considers, discusses, and votes on updated resolutions under recurring titles, apart from special resolutions that are borne out of fresh crises/new developments. Among these, five key resolutions pertain to Israeli practices affecting the human rights of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem; Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory; the peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine; assistance to Palestinian refugees; and the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. Among other things, these resolutions explicitly call for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories it has occupied since 1967, condemn both Israeli settlements in these territories as well as the harassment of Palestinians by Israeli settlers, and undertake an exhaustive critical review of all actions by Israel as an occupying power in breach of international law. These resolutions have consistently been fervently opposed by Israel, especially for their critical language and tone. India’s vote for almost all of these resolutions, across 10 years, has been in favour. Its abstention was observed only in the 77th Session (2022) for Resolution A/RES/77/247 (Israeli practices…in the Occupied Palestinian Territory).

This abstention, however, was not indicative of any change in policy but rather India’s reservations with the UNGA’s choice to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Israeli actions in occupied territory (the case which is currently being heard by the Court).

Also read: Eye on the Middle East | The case 52 states made against Israel before the ICJ

In principle, India has usually opposed such legal methods to solving political problems. In the 78th UNGA session in December 2023, India continued to vote against Israel in the recurring resolutions. Among these was India’s favourable vote on the resolution condemning Israeli settlements, which caught media attention due to the closer watch on Indian voting positions at the UN after its surprise abstention earlier in October. However, as shown above, these are recurring resolutions where the Modi government too has shown considerable continuity in policy with previous governments.

The exceptions

While India’s voting pattern reflects a clear element of continuity, there have often been breaks in particular resolutions that deviate from the pattern. For instance, in the recurring resolution titled ‘Peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine’, the UNGA annually calls for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories it has occupied since 1967, which India votes in favour of, as it did even in the 76th UNGA session in December 2021. However, in the same session, India abstained on a resolution expressing “serious concern” about “the possible displacement of Palestinian families from homes that they have lived in for generations in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem”. This resolution, which was voted on due to the riots in Sheikh Jarrah in May 2021, as a response to Israeli police action, drew an abstention from India. Evidently, in resolutions that called for Israel’s whole-scale withdrawal from East Jerusalem, India voted in favour. But on a resolution that seeks to guard against forced displacement of Palestinians from neighbourhoods (such as Sheikh Jarrah) within East Jerusalem, India abstained.

Similarly, in October 2023, as India abstained on a UNGA Emergency Special Session resolution calling for a ceasefire, its reasoning was (implicitly) linked to the failed amendment to condemn Hamas. However, when the UNGA voted in favour of a ceasefire in 2018 following an escalation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip, rejecting a United States-led amendment to condemn Hamas, India then voted in favour. In December 2023, India went back to this 2018 position, deviating only in October 2023.

Terrorism is a distinct issue

Arguably, India’s October abstention was driven as much by the policy of viewing terrorism as a distinct issue, as much as by the belief that it had space to manoeuvre. In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks on October 7, 2024, global sympathy lay with Israel, and Arab reactions were muted. In both scale and scope, this changed, with Arab opinion now consolidated against Israel. Regardless of cause, in effect, India’s switch in vote occurred parallel to the change in Arab reactions, even as the death toll in Gaza exponentially grew. More telling is the fact that following the Prime Minister’s tweet expressing solidarity with Israel after October 7, India has not expressed any similar statement that can be characterised as a categorical tilt towards Israel. Rather, in a number of subsequent public statements, India’s External Affairs Minister has vigorously asserted the necessity of the two-State solution (even as Benjamin Netanyahu himself pivots away from it), while condemning terrorism. Evidently, India’s support for Palestinian sovereignty has only further strengthened across this conflict.

It is clear then, that India under the Modi government has displayed an ability to couch its UN stance from its geopolitical choices, at least with regard to the Israel-Palestine issue. There are other examples to support this. For instance, despite the India-United States relationship also reaching unprecedented heights under the Modi government, India has consistently refused to back Washington’s decision to recognise Jerusalem (including occupied territories) as Israel’s capital in 2017 and move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018. Notably, when the UNGA categorically criticised the move in a special session and called upon states to desist from establishing diplomatic missions to Israel in Jerusalem, India voted in favour of the UNGA resolution (A/RES/ES-10/19). That position remains unchanged, and India itself continues to recognise Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital.

When it comes to voting at the UN on polarising geopolitical issues (especially those where New Delhi has strong ties with either contested party), India’s voting preferences vis-a-vis resolutions on the Ukraine war show that it prefers the abstention approach. An abstention allows it more room to exercise choice, even as it expresses its desire for a cessation of hostilities in its explanations of the vote. India could have very well adopted the same approach for resolutions on Israel-Palestine (both before and during the Gaza war), as its relationship with Israel grew, alongside its relationship with Arab states (especially the United Arab Emirates). Its choice to continue voting in favour of key resolutions criticising Israel instead of abstaining shows its preference to assert its originally held principles, regardless of which government is in power, at least thus far.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal.

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