India and the state of Palestine
Last week, the Swedish government chose to grant formal recognition to a Palestinian state. Such a move was not entirely surprising. In the wake of the Gaza war, the stalled peace process and steady Israeli expansion of settlements in Jerusalem and not to mention the intransigence of certain members of the current Israeli Cabinet, the possibility of a two-state solution to this enduring conflict seems increasingly remote. The Swedish decision came not long after a non-binding resolution passed in the British House of Commons calling for the recognition of a Palestinian state. Both these moves indicate a growing international concern about the near moribund state of the peace process.
Given the recent vote in the House of Commons and the Swedish decision India may now wish to accord full diplomatic recognition to the Palestinians. Currently, India has a representative mission but not a formal embassy in Ramallah. It should now raise the status of the office to an embassy. Such a move would be entirely in keeping with the country’s long-standing support for the Palestinian cause. It would also signal that India is willing and able to bear some costs as it seeks to play a wider global role.
What could be the possible arguments against such a move? Two immediately come to mind and need to be addressed forthrightly. First, it would obviously cause some strain in Indo-Israeli relations. However, since India’s rather belated decision to grant full diplomatic status to Israel in 1992, the relationship, with some inevitable hiccups, has flourished. Today it is a genuinely multi-faceted relationship extending from substantial people-to-people contacts to extensive defence cooperation. Consequently, even if there is some immediate heartburn in Tel Aviv with this decision, it is unlikely to sour India’s long-term ties with Israel.
Second, it could be argued that such a move is entirely premature. Some may well argue that at this juncture it is far from clear what will constitute the geographic boundaries of the Palestinian state. This argument, though superficially appealing, is not with much merit. The final status of the Palestinian state and its exact territorial contours, it is hoped, could be arrived at after the conclusion of bilateral talks. However, given the distressing state of the negotiations granting full diplomatic recognition to Palestine may contribute to a renewed momentum to the talks.
This is especially the case because India, unlike a host of other states, does matter to Israel. After an initial pique, even hardline elements within the current government in Israel would pay heed to India’s decision. It may not spur them to take prompt action but could at least have the effect of forcing a reconsideration of their present stance of stonewalling any meaningful discussions with the Palestinians. It could also be noted that if Palestine does not have defined international boundaries, of necessity neither does Israel, yet that fact does not prevent it from being recognised as a state in the international community.
There are several reasons for India lending its weight and emerging international prestige in this direction. First, there is a growing international consensus toward recognition of Palestine as a full sovereign state. To begin with, though the Obama administration successfully lobbied the Security Council to block Palestine from gaining admission as a United Nations member state, the UN General Assembly granted Palestine the status of a non-member observer state, the same status Switzerland had until 2002. Upgrading India’s relationship with Palestine would be in line with this emerging consensus.
This international consensus is buttressed in disparate parts of the world. Needless to say, all the Arab and Islamic states fully recognise Palestine as a sovereign state. That is true also of much of the African continent, too, as well as Asia. These are states with which India has historically had much in common, and it would be in keeping with India’s diplomatic history since Independence to upgrade its diplomatic presence in Palestine. It should be noted that, while Sweden is the first major West European state to recognise Palestine, several East European and Latin American states also have full diplomatic relations with Palestine.
Other great powers too have full diplomatic recognition of Palestine, including states among the permanent five members (P5) of the UN Security Council. China and Russia have such relations. Although France does not have an ambassador to Palestine, it did vote in favour of elevating Palestine to the current status it enjoys in the General Assembly. Further, the vote in the Commons mentioned above at least puts that body firmly in the camp of full recognition, even if Her Majesty’s government has not yet taken action in the direction of full recognition. This, of course, means that the United States, with its rejectionist policies, is isolated from its Security Council peers.
It has been said of the so-called peace process that the Israelis want talks without a solution and the Palestinians want a solution without talks. The window for a two-state solution may be closing. India’s seizing the initiative and elevating the level of its representation to Palestine may be the very tonic needed to convince the Israeli government that it should take talks with their Palestinian counterparts seriously toward a true resolution. Such a move also gives moderates in Palestine a boost, showing that there is a light at the end of the long tunnel the Palestinians have been in. India thus has an opportunity to make its voice heard in West Asia.
The writer is director of the Centre for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University, Bloomington