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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Israel-Palestine conflict: India walks tightrope in current crisis

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on May 24, 2021 and can be accessed here.

Last month, one of the holiest places in the world became the site of violence as Israel and Palestine have engaged in the worst bout of conflict since 2014. Over 240 people were killed (mainly in Gaza) in 11 days before a ceasefire was announced between the two countries. As Hamas fired rockets towards Central and Southern Israel, Israeli airstrikes and bombs in Gaza brought massive destruction to property and Palestinian lives. Yet, when the ceasefire was announced, both sides declared victory. On the international front, countries have been quick to pick sides, depending on their traditional positions, with the US backing Israel and most Middle Eastern countries supporting Palestine.

The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), even offered to host peace talks between the two sides. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying criticized the US, who vetoed the Security Council resolution to stop hostilities. The Chinese side also outlined a four-point framework that focused on the ceasefire, humanitarian aid, international support, and the acceptance of the ‘two-states’ principle. China has been working to be seen as a neutral mediator in the issue.

In the first half Cold War, China under Mao Zedong supported Palestine as it saw Israel as part of the “imperialist West.” China was the first country outside the Arab world to diplomatically recognize the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and provide it with arms and training. From the 1980s onwards, it reduced its support and worked towards normalization of relations with Israel. China finally established relations with Israel in 1992, and since then, relations between the two countries have spiraled, with Israel even agreeing to be part of the Belt and Road Initiative. China is one of Israel’s largest trading partners, particularly on technology projects. However, it has also received much of Washington’s pressure to delink hi-tech and defense industries from Chinese investment.

On the other hand, it has not recognized Hamas and voted for Palestine to receive observer status at the UN. China perceives itself as a neutral party on the issue – one with a history of conducting business deals with countries that are bitter feuds. As China depends heavily on the Middle East for its energy supplies, it has also expressed a desire to be part of the peace process in the region.

Like China, India also supported Palestine as a non-aligned country and established full diplomatic ties with Israel only in 1992. However, relations with Israel did improve – with Israel now the third-largest arms provider to India. Since 2014, the government has also shifted its stance in intensifying relations with Israel. Another common point to note is that among the Chinese and Indian public, there is admiration for the Israeli population, for their technological prowess and their ability to defend themselves against terrorism. When Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the leaders of 27 countries for backing Israel, many Indians were surprised to note the absence of the India flag. That is because India has walked the tightrope in the current crisis – it has stressed the two-state solution but left its statements vague enough not to condemn Israel or Hamas.

While the United States typically takes the Israeli side in any crisis, the former American President Donald Trump was specifically anti-Palestine as he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Now, Joe Biden has re-emphasized the two-state solution, though he also states that there was no shift in the commitment to Israel. While the Democrats in the United States have moved left on Israel policy, it is unlikely that there will be massive shifts in America’s policy, soon.

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