On Israel-Palestine, resist the temptation to mediate
The recent 11-day Israel-Hamas conflict has encouraged some journalists, foreign policy elites, academics and retired diplomats to flag India’s candidacy as a possible mediator. They suggest that as a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause for nearly a century, India has impeccable credentials, and its close relations with Israel and the Palestinians since the 1990s give it both an opportunity and leverage. It is also claimed that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only essential for peace in West Asia but would also serve India’s interests.
Though interesting, closer scrutiny would expose India’s feet of clay. For one, while in the past, India played an important role in mitigating various conflicting situations such as the Korean war or during the Suez Canal crisis, both in the 1950s, one cannot ignore two notable flipsides. New Delhi’s response to the crises in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1966) was a betrayal of the people of these countries and considerably dented India’s non-aligned credentials. Moreover, its diplomatic influences were buried in the Himalayas in 1962. Three decades of hard work and economic ascendance were necessary to hear Indian voices again. When it comes to mediating international crises, India’s track record is a mixed bag.
Two, in recent decades, India has been unwilling or unable to be effective in resolving some of the conflicts in its immediate neighbourhood. It was not a visible and effective player during the crises in Sri Lanka (especially in the post-conflict stage) and Afghanistan (where its ability to shape developments is limited). It is struggling with the military-democratic resistance conflict in Myanmar, and is seen as a less-than-credible mediator in Bangladesh or Nepal, If this is the extent of India’s diplomatic leverage in South Asia, what will its influence in the ever-turbulent West Asia be?
Three, any Indian peacemaking efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be an open invitation for third-party involvement in the Kashmir issue. For long, Pakistan has been clamouring for external mediation, and at different times, several countries and regional organisations have expressed a desire to mediate between India and Pakistan. If India were to involve itself in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, countries such as Turkey will make similar moves on Kashmir. Unless it is ready to open a Pandora’s box on Kashmir, India should not consider offering its good offices to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Four, one has to recognise the harsh reality. Every teacher is not a Confucius and every adviser is not Chanakya. Peacemaking needs abiding interest, nuanced skills and above all, domain expertise. These credentials are not easily found in the current structure of the Indian civil service. Since Independence, the bureaucracy is meant to create and promote the generalists, and an average Indian diplomat holds a dozen positions during his/her career and becomes an “expert” on all these issues and regions. There are exceptions, and some develop domain expertise, especially on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as a post-retirement passion, but their number is minuscule.
Indeed, in 2005, former Indian diplomat Chinmaya Gharekhan was named a special envoy for the Middle East. For long, the United States (US) had such a position, and gradually Russia, the European Union and China followed this practice. India sought to imitate this but without any clear mandate, agenda or even designation. Initially, Gharekhan was Special Envoy for West Asia and the Middle East Peace Process, and his designation changed to Prime Minister (PM)’s Special Envoy for the region. The non-seriousness of this move became clear when the position was allowed to lapse in 2009 as Manmohan Singh formed his second government. No one ever talked of a special envoy for the region since then.
Five, claims that India has good relations with both parties are true but misleading. From the information currently available in the public domain, India does not engage with, let alone recognise, Hamas, the militant Palestinian group which controls the Gaza Strip. The recent conflict highlighted the growing influence of Hamas, and no effective peacemaking effort will be possible without India establishing a modus vivendi with Hamas. In recent years, both Russia and China have engaged with Hamas and even hosted its leaders. There are no indications that the ministry of external affairs is considering this option and engaging with Hamas without alienating Israel and Palestinian National Authority (PNA) will not be easy either.
Six, the continuing gap between Israel and the Palestinians is not due to the want of efforts by various players, especially the US. For various reasons, both sides believe that time is on their side and are not ready to make the necessary changes to reach an agreement. Conflict resolution does not appear to be their priority, and no external pressures or inducement will make them reach an agreement. In short, while others can facilitate, only the parties concerned can reach an agreement, and today there are no signs of this. If the failures of so many proposals are an indication, third-party involvement mostly complicates the problem.
Seven, while having relations with both parties is critical, there are scores of countries that maintain formal ties with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. For example, if the Emirates has relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia is inclined towards normalisation. Both these countries have greater political and economic clout than India and are better placed to financially support any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Talking to both sides is not a sufficient condition for an active Indian engagement in conflict resolution.
Above all, active Indian involvement in mediation or facilitation efforts will have to be led by the prime minister (PM) himself and cannot be done by lesser figures in the government or bureaucrats. Though he has met the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and PM Narendra Modi’s chemistry might help entangle some bilateral knots, he still lacks the leverage to influence the domestic policies of his interlocutors towards peace. With the pandemic response shaping his political future, mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be the last thing PM Modi should be concerned with.
PR Kumaraswamy teaches contemporary Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal