Eye on the Middle East | The BRICS has cemented its position on Israel - Hindustan Times

Eye on the Middle East | The BRICS has cemented its position on Israel

Jun 16, 2024 11:08 AM IST

For a grouping that resisted any addition of full members since South Africa in 2010, the new members can significantly influence the nature of summit outcomes

On June 10, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Foreign Ministers’ Joint Statement explicitly condemned Israel’s military operation in Rafah, expressed serious concern at Israel’s “blatant disregard” for international law, the UN Charter, UN resolutions, and ICJ Orders.

BRICS member nations PREMIUM
BRICS member nations

While the statement also called for the unconditional release of all hostages and civilians illegally held captive (without naming Hamas), it reaffirmed support for Palestine’s full membership at the UN and called for the implementation of key UNSC resolutions calling for a ceasefire (2728) and greater humanitarian aid (2720). While India’s approval of the statement (available on the MEA’s website) is significant given its unprecedentedly strong language against Israel, the development also sheds light on the evolution of the BRICS’ engagement with the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine question.

The BRICS and Israel

Ever since its inception in 2009 (and South Africa’s addition in 2010), each annual summit of the BRICS (whether at the Foreign Ministers or Heads of State level) has taken stock of the whole gamut of global issues, parsed them through the lens of the Global South, and recommended alternative policy measures that promote a de-Westernisation of the global order.

This has invariably included the Israel-Palestine issue. However, the BRICS statements have been consistently unique in endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative (API) – a 10-point declaration borne out of the 2002 Arab League Summit in Beirut that trades Arab-Israeli normalization with Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders. In doing this, the statements have preferred injecting some balance, even while criticising Israeli settlements in occupied territory.

For instance, the 2016 Goa Declaration largely restricted mention of the issue to the API and the Madrid Principles, as did the Xiamen Declaration in 2017. More importantly, the years preceding and succeeding these two declarations featured two crests in the Israel-Palestine conflict with Israel’s war in Gaza in 2014 and Gaza border protests in 2018 – both of which witnessed large scale loss of Palestinian lives.

In 2014, the BRICS Fortaleza Declaration completely avoided mention of Israel-Hamas clashes (sticking to its call to implement the API along with relevant UNGA resolutions); in 2018 it replicated this approach.

Indeed, a decade ago, the BRICS was a more cautious in its dealings with an Israel that was increasingly looking to pivot to the East while maintaining its relations with Europe and the West. At the time, former Likud Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs Moshe Arens had asserted that “slowly but surely, Israel is pivoting toward the east ... away from Europe and the sad European legacy”, even as Israel was considering shutting several trade missions across Europe and opening new missions in Russia, China, and India.

Now, however, Israel has not found support for its Gaza war (with the death toll crossing 37,000) from among BRICS members; India’s support too has not been forthcoming since PM Modi’s tweet of solidarity in October 2023. All other members (especially new additions) also assertively advocate both for a ceasefire as well as an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders.

Shifts in composition and outlook

Originally a grouping of emerging national economies, the BRICS expanded its membership after much deliberation in August, 2023 to include Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Argentina. Now representing 42% of the world’s population and 37.3% of its GDP, the grouping has only furthered its credentials to act as an alternative to Western institutions that define the world order and channel the needs of the Global South.

By 2022, all of these states had expressed a keen interest in joining the grouping, not least due to considerable Chinese (and Russian) lobbying. Indeed, during the final expansion, most analytical commentary from India and abroad termed it a Chinese victory.

Notwithstanding reports of India’s own doubts about the expansion, by supporting it, India ultimately prioritised the benefits of advocating for greater inclusion of the Global South in non-Western multilateral groupings over the attendant risk of enabling more room for Chinese influence in the BRICS. The latter has been a pre-dominant concern, given the rapidly strengthening ties between Beijing and the newly inducted capitals.

Naturally then, with most of the new members being from the Middle East and North Africa, the grouping’s assertiveness on issues in those regions was expected to increase, and it has.

For a grouping that resisted any addition of full members since South Africa in 2010, the new members can significantly influence the nature of summit outcomes due to the BRICS relying on a consensus-based approach for decision-making. Supplemented by South Africa spearheading an international diplomatic and legal effort against Israel’s war in Gaza (including a genocide charge at the ICJ), the BRICS had all the ingredients necessary by June 2024 to scale up its criticism of Israel, undoing the balance it has historically preferred, to some degree.

Moreover, the question of BRICS expansion is arguably still not fully settled, given that Turkey has only increased its own long-standing efforts to join the grouping. With Ankara facing continuing issues with European Union membership, just the prospect alone of BRICS membership for a NATO state allows it to hedge better and improve its bargaining position with the West.

In any case, one of the main tests for the Turkey-USA relationship has been the former’s S-400 deal with Russia; a deal that India too has made. Hence, another strong middle power with strong ties to the West and asserting its strategic autonomy, would not be an unnatural addition to the BRICS. Turkey too has been particularly assertive against Israel’s actions in Gaza (as this column showed).

Lastly, while the June BRICS statement is significant for its unprecedented language against Israel, just as is India’s approval, it highlights a certain approach that New Delhi has followed when criticising Israel in this crisis.

While India (now) supports a ceasefire, vociferously calls for a two-state solution and a sovereign Palestine, and demands respect for international law, all of these are criticisms of Israel only by inference. Even in its reaction to the Rafah bombings in May, the Ministry of External Affairs termed it “heart-breaking” without naming Israel or attributing responsibility to the IDF.

It is only in multilateral resolutions such as that of the United Nations – both recurring resolutions on Israel and Palestine – as well as those from the special emergency sessions that India has assented to direct criticism of Israel (as shown here). The BRICS statement is the latest and arguably the most significant update to this approach.

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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