Indian diplomacy works in mysterious ways. One moment external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj resists a discussion in Parliament on Israel’s military assault in Gaza and then subsequently blocks a resolution on the issue on grounds that it cannot be introduced under Rule 176.
Speaking in Parliament this week, Ms Swaraj refused to censure Israel and suggested that the House should not be divided but send a joint message that violence is condemnable wherever it happens. But India on Wednesday commendably voted in favour of a strong United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution, which calls Israel “the occupying Power” and “condemns in the strongest terms the widespread, systematic and gross violation of international human rights and fundamental freedoms” arising from Israel’s military operations in the occupied territories since mid-June. In marked contrast to the external affairs minister’s reticence, Asoke Mukerji, India’s envoy to the UN, reiterated during a Security Council debate in New York that the blockade of Gaza must be lifted and the issue of Israel’s “increasing settlement activities” needs to be addressed to take the peace process forward. India also endorsed fairly strong language on Israeli settlements in the Fortaleza Declaration signed at the recent BRICS summit.
It is not clear if the mixed messaging from the NDA government is borne out of poor coordination or if South Block makes the distinction between multilateral censure and direct criticism by India’s political leadership. The latter as a strategy is a difficult tightrope to walk particularly if the crisis prolongs in the weeks ahead. Indian interests are best served not by waffling on the line to take but by exercising candour and pointing that Tel Aviv’s actions in Gaza compound Israel’s isolation, undermine its internal cohesion and further destabilise the region.
Indian leaders are sensitive to Israel as it is a key source of weapons and intelligence, besides having scientific expertise in a range of matters including agriculture, water management, healthcare and cybersecurity. Several Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ms Swaraj, are familiar with the advantages of allying with Israel. The Indian political establishment has, however, not reckoned on the fact that being a big market for Israeli exports also gives New Delhi a measure of leverage with Tel Aviv. India has also accrued a measure of goodwill in Israel over the years, as even the UPA government did not change the course of ties while paying greater lip service to the Palestinians. The Narendra Modi government, therefore, can and must maintain consistency in its messaging on Israel and underline that it can draw a line between material and moral imperatives. The last thing Israel needs is an all-weather friend who cannot tell it like it is.