President Trump, on 6th Dec, unilaterally accepted Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv there. It was not a decision in haste, nor did it stem from his imagination. The US house of representatives had passed a law in 1995, demanding the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. Every President who did not implement it had to certify the same every six months, which Trump also did once. This time he took the bull by the horns.
Earlier Presidents avoided this decision, knowing it would enhance tensions and move the US away from being the main peace negotiator. Further with multiple international crises dominating US foreign policy, they avoided adding another. Trump was hoping for support from Saudi Arabia, whose ties with Israel and the US are presently on the rise, however was trumped. Once announced, the US could not back down, hence desperately desired international support at the UN.
The issue was raised at the UN Security Council (UNSC), which voted 14 to 1, compelling the US to enforce its veto. Subsequently, the same came up for discussion in the UN General Assembly, where it was voted against by 128 nations. While the vote has limited impact, and cannot compel the US to change its decision, the behaviour of the US, prior and post the vote, bears relevance.Both the votes conveyed that the international community did not support the US decision.
Nikki Haley, the US permanent representative in the UN, commented post the UNSC decision, ‘What we have witnessed here is an insult. It won’t be forgotten.’ Prior to the General Assembly vote, Nikki Haley wrote to almost all the 193 UN member states warning of possible retaliation by the US, if it voted against them. She even went on to state that the President was taking the matter personally.
Speaking to members of his cabinet prior to the UN general Assembly vote, Trump stated, ‘For all these nations, they take our money and then vote against us. We’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We’ll save a lot’. All this failed to deter the world, which voted overwhelmingly against the US. Trump was very clearly playing upto his domestic audience, when he made his announcement, rather than the international community.
While members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) were clearly expected to vote against it, so were many European nations, who have been involved in negotiations for settling the issue, India’s vote came as a surprise. India has a growing relationship with Israel and is also a strategic partner of the US, hence was expected to either abstain or vote in its favour. Further, Israel has always backed India on Kashmir, while Palestine has never, preferring to support the OIC, which backed Pakistan. India,on the other hand, had been a supporter of the Palestine movement, since its non-aligned days.
India did not criticise the initial announcement made by Trump on the subject. It maintained a studied silence, despite many opposition parties demanding a government statement. Even requests from many pro-Palestine nations, including their own envoy, did not evoke a response. This indicated that the government stood by Israel. Silenceat the right time conveyed the correct message to those who mattered.
Simultaneously, India was aware of the implications of the UN vote. It knewit’s vote may hurt US and Israeli ego, but would never bring about a change in its decision. The General Assembly vote is neither binding nor a direction. Israel is aware, and the Indian decision would have been conveyedto them prior to the voting.The comment that Israel was ‘disappointed’ by the Indian action was expected, but meant no impact on relations. Israel has been sanctioned on many occasions by the UN, which it has ignored. In Oct this year both Israel and the US announced their withdrawn from UNESCO, citing anti-Israeli decisions.
By casting the vote against the US, India has reiterated its support to the Palestine cause, as enunciated by us historically. Hence, diplomatically India has played the correct card, not criticizing the decision, while voting in an inconsequential exercise. The vote by the General Assembly has limited international implications. Nations voted as per their own national interest perspectives.
Saudi Arabia, a leader in the Moslem world, whom the US expected to support, is presently moving closer to Israel, seeking to jointly challenge Iran’s rising military power and influence. Iran is an anathema to all three, US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia has objected to the US decision and voted against the US action, it is unlikely to take further action as it goes against its present national interest. It would be similar with most other nations. Europeans voted more from their conscience and concerns, rather than from challenging the US.
The US, which claimed to have a solution in mind when it made this announcement would no longer be a mediator in the peace process. The announcement has angered and weakened the Palestinian authority, which now cannot accept further US involvement in the region. If it does accept, it would be rejected by its own people. Thus, the US would temporarily lose its influence in the region. For Israel, whom Trump always supported, it would be a boost in the arm. It would give them leeway to enforce stringent measures on the Palestinians, increasing tensions in the region.
India has successfully played a balancing act, by enhancing its relations with Israel, while simultaneously engaging with Iran and Palestine, sworn enemies of Israel. Hence, its actions have been laudable. It has supported the anti-US vote in the General Assembly, receiving gratitude from Palestine and not commented on the US decision, thus being diplomatically proper. It also did not comment on the US decision in the General Assembly as many others did. Ultimately, it did the best it could under the circumstances, mainly due to its proximity to US, Israel and Palestine.
(The author is a retired Major General of the Indian Army)