Talk about unintended consequences. Could the Palestinians’ pursuit of statehood at the United Nations finally put an end to the movement of so-called non-aligned nations, who have nursed Arab grievances against Israel for decades? That certainly seems to be the implication of a report that India is considering a change to its pattern of supporting the Palestinians at the United Nations. Instead, the country, under new leadership and with growing ties to Israel, may abstain on votes regarding the Middle East peace process.
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The Hindu newspaper, which published the report, reckons that such a decision “could amount to a tectonic shift in the country’s foreign policy.” It quoted “a senior Israeli interlocutor” as having likened the way India has treated Israel in the past to the way one treats a “mistress — by keeping the bilateral relationship away from the public gaze.”
It quoted two sources within the Indian government as confirming that the change being studied would be “a fundamental departure from India’s support to the cause of a Palestinian state.” It is being aired just as the Palestinians are pressing a new effort to put the statehood question not only to the UN General Assembly but also to the Security Council.
This is all part of what, in a column for Haaretz issued in May, I called the “enormous potential consequence” of the victory of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which won a landslide majority in the parliament. If India follows through at the United Nations, it would be a once-unimaginable development, at least for those of us who covered the debates on the Third World during the Cold War.
The Non-Aligned Movement was founded in 1961 in Belgrade. Its most famous figures were Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Presidents Sukarno of Indonesia, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Though these countries were technically not allies, they perused policies at the United Nations and elsewhere, together with the Soviet Union, that ranged from being oleaginous to pernicious.
Fidel Castro of Cuba was one of the Non-Aligned Movement's tribunes, and Palestine has been a member of the movement since 1976. India, by virtue of its vast size and the liveliness of its multi-party democracy and free press, was by far its most credible leading member. It had outsized prestige in the decolonizing world because of Gandhi and the way it gained independence from Britain. But since the collapse of the Soviet regime, the Non-Aligned Movement has lacked a logical raison d’etre. India’s shift on Palestine could spell its doom.
Not that Israel was without its own claim on the attention of the Third World, a point of which I was reminded by my crony Benyamin Korn, who as a young liberal journalist had spent a good bit of time in India. Israel, he stressed in an email about the latest developments, was active in the Third World in the 1950s. Some of Israel's “early” successes, Korn noted, were Burma, where it had a diplomatic mission and agricultural projects under Prime Minister U Nu; Singapore, where Israel helped developed banking, tourism and the army; and later Sri Lanka, with which it had military cooperation.
But he notes that full cooperation between Israel and India was in effect blocked by Nehru at the request of Nasser. The way he characterizes it is that if India defects from the Palestinian solidarity front in international fora, the Third World bloc of non-aligned nations “will fall apart.” He notes that India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, has been itching to make a visit to Israel, though nothing has been announced.
The Times of India has reported that such a visit could come as early as January and set the stage for a visit to the Jewish state by Modi himself. That would make him the first Indian premier to visit Jerusalem since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1992. A writer on Al Jazeera even noted recently that “today many commentators see India’s traditional support for Palestinians as anachronistic.”
From here in New York, however, the bilateral breakthrough that is taking place between Israel and India appears less important than the big picture. It is a reminder that in a time of American retreat and growing hostility in Europe, there are other options for Israel. It’s not that I welcome the pull-back by the Obama administration (which is currently trying to delay the Palestinian demarche at the Security Council until after Israel’s election in March), but amid an America withdrawal, it’s encouraging to see that other democracies are coming to their senses.
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.