India abstaining from UNHRC vote against Israel: A policy shift?

modi-israelIn a contentious move that has sparked a debate in diplomatic-strategic circles, India abstained from voting against Israel in the UNHRC for “alleged war crimes” committed during the Gaza conflict in 2014. The resolution was adopted with 41 countries voting in favour of the resolution against Israel, with the US being the only country voting against it. Five countries, including India abstained, triggering speculation about a possible shift in New Delhi’s position on the Palestinian question.

Interestingly, India in July 2014 had voted against Israel and in favour of the resolution, that had instituted this very report to inquire into the alleged war crimes by Israel in Gaza, that killed nearly 2300 civilians. India’s external affairs ministry has vehemently denied charges about any dilution of New Delhi’s commitment to the Palestinian cause. The ministry clarified that India had abstained from voting because the UNHRC resolution had included a reference to taking Israel to the International Criminal Court(ICC), which India considers “intrusive”. The government also underlined that whenever a Human Rights Council Resolution made a direct reference to the ICC, it had abstained, even in the recent cases of North Korea and Syria. It claimed it has stuck to that very same policy.

The vote comes in the backdrop of recent initiatives taken by the new government to forge stronger ties with Israel. Prime Minister Modi is expected to visit Israel soon, making him the first Indian PM to visit Israel, which is seen as a sign of the new government’s perceptible tilt towards Tel Aviv. Despite voting against Israel in July 2014, the government of India did not condemn the attacks by Israel on civilians and this is seen by some as a shift in approach towards Israel. Some reports also suggest that the government is planning a reversal of policy on Israel and Palestine even at the U.N. As expected the opposition parties have criticised the vote. The BJP, India’s ruling party, has traditionally been in favour of having strong ties with Israel, while not being very vocal for the Palestine cause. This is in stark contrast to the approach by Congress which has been defensive about ties with Israel and has been more vocal about support for Palestine.

Some opposition members have charged that this move by the government lacked transparency, saying if the government wants to make a policy shift it should take Parliament into confidence. The Left parties went a step further and said that the government should withdraw its position and express solidarity with Palestine.

The Modi government is, however, unlikely to capitulate to the opposition’s pressure on this issue as it is following a conscious policy to expand ties with Israel across the spectrum while publicly maintaining that closer ties with Tel Aviv are not the cost of India’s historical and long-standing support to the Palestinian cause.  It will be interesting to watch how the Modi government plays this balancing game in its West Asia policy in the days to come.

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