Two votes at the United Nations in the second half of December 2017 have galvanized public opinion. On December 18, 14 out of the 15 members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) voted against any decisions or actions of the United States which would “change the character, status and or demographic composition of Jerusalem”. The US vetoed the UNSC resolution which had been tabled by Egypt, a non-permanent member of the UNSC and a major US military ally.
On December 21, at the request of the Arab Group and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the tenth United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) special session was reconvened to consider the issue and voted 128 to 9 to oppose any attempt by the United States to alter the status of Jerusalem. India was among the 128 countries voting for the resolution.
India’s position on the UNGA Jerusalem vote should be seen in the context of three converging interests of India’s foreign policy, notwithstanding the impending visit of Israeli prime minister Benjamin (bibi) Netanyahu to India this month.
The first is India’s institutional interest in using the UNGA platform to push for its foreign policy objectives. India’s recent experience of the persuasive power of the UNGA to overcome the opposition in the UNSC to the candidature of Justice Dalveer Bhandari to the ICJ illustrates this well. India’s use of the UNGA platform has a long history. In February 1946, India was the first country to inscribe on the UNGA agenda the issue of racial discrimination in South Africa. This initiative evolved into the anti-apartheid movement, and finally succeeded in catalyzing the emergence of a multi-racial South Africa, whose delegation to the UNGA in 1994 was led by President Nelson Mandela.
In the context of issues relevant to modern Israel, India was one of the three countries co-sponsoring the UNGA resolution adopted in 1946 to mandate the negotiation of the Genocide Convention, adopted in 1948. Raphael Lemkin, the driving force behind this legal instrument, has recorded his appreciation of the leadership shown by India in the UNGA on this issue. Similarly, India was the chair of the Ad-Hoc Committee of the UNGA in 1979 which recommended the negotiation and adoption of UN counter-terror legal instruments, including the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. These recommendations flowed out of the UNGA’s first resolution on countering terrorism, adopted in 1972 following the terrorist attack on Israel’s contingent at the Munich Olympics.
The vote on the Jerusalem resolution is in keeping with India’s activism in the UNGA, with the larger objective of persuading the UNGA to adopt a resolution by two-thirds majority vote to amend the provisions of the UN Charter and reform the UNSC. India’s objective of permanent membership of the UNSC would become viable once such a UNGA resolution is adopted, enabling it to seek election to one of the new permanent seats.
The second issue relates to India’s policy on West Asia, especially Jerusalem. After the military occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967, both the UNGA and the UNSC affirmed that Israel’s “acquisition of territory by war” is inadmissible, and called for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. UNSC resolution 476, adopted in 1980, reiterated the illegality of any move to alter the status of Jerusalem, and called on all countries “that have established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions from the Holy City”. The United States abstained, but did not veto this resolution. India, with its own experience of the violation of its territorial integrity by Pakistan’s military actions in Jammu and Kashmir, has endorsed the position of the UNGA and UNSC on Jerusalem. Its vote in the UNGA reflects the consistency of India’s policy on this issue.
A third foreign policy interest for India flows out of its “Think West” policy. The focus for India in West Asia is grounded in India’s “views and interests, (and) not determined by any third country”, to quote India’s official spokesman. These views and interests have been incrementally visible in India’s recent engagement with its Arab strategic partners. West Asian crude oil and natural gas account for almost 60% of India’s energy imports annually.
The World Bank estimated that in 2015, about 7 million Indian nationals working in the three Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar (countries visited by Prime Minister Modi during 2015-2016) remitted US$28.2 billion to India’s household economy. On December 5, the UAE Ambassador to India announced that the US$75 billion UAE sovereign fund for India had been operationalized, with US$1 billion already transferred to India’s National Infrastructure and Investment Fund. Such statistics underline the critical role that investments, trade and remittances play in the current drive to transform India, and the role of West Asian countries in this context. They also help explain India’s position on the Jerusalem resolution in the UNGA, which was introduced by Yemen on behalf of the Arab Group.
India’s vote on the Jerusalem resolution should be seen in the context of how Israel’s other strategic partners have voted in the UNGA. This illustrates that India’s position was not isolated, or divergent from other countries friendly with Israel or the United States. The 128 countries which voted for the resolution included the major exporters to Israel (China, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and Italy), 21 out of NATO’s 28-member countries, as well as Russia. From the Asian region, China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Singapore supported the resolution, as did Bahrain, which hosts the headquarters of the US 5th Fleet, and Qatar, which hosts 10,000 US troops at its Al Udeid Air Base, the forward operating base of the US Central Command for actions in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria and a host of developing countries voted for the resolution. The Jerusalem resolution sends a strong signal to Israel at a time it is campaigning for a non-permanent seat in the UNSC, elections for which are to be held in the UNGA in June 2018.