International relations, National security | Asia, South Asia, The World

10 September 2020

The normalisation of UAE-Israel ties will likely benefit India’s interests in the Middle East for now, but balancing relations with both Israel and Palestine will remain a challenge for the country in the long term, Don McLain Gill writes.

On 13 August, United States President Donald Trump announced that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel have agreed to establish normal diplomatic relations in a development that will put on hold Israel’s efforts to annex parts of the West Bank.

The following day, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan called Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to brief him about his country establishing ties with Israel. The minister expressed his appreciation for the call, and this significant move between the UAE and Israel serves as a positive sign for India and its strategic interests in the Middle East. However, challenges may still arise for the country.

It is simple to see the potential benefits of this move for India. Israel and India have enjoyed close relations in recent years, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also been able to cultivate strong relations with the UAE. With the two states normalising relations, the diplomatic environment in the Middle East will likely become more favourable for India.

According to Navdeep Suri, India’s former envoy to the UAE, “[India has] excellent ties with both Israel and UAE, so the normalisation of ties between them is good news for India. It opens the way for meaningful cooperation in several areas of mutual interest ranging from conservation of water resources and promoting food security to joining hands in the fight against terrorism.”

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The UAE is the first Gulf state to normalise ties with Israel and the third Arab state, after Egypt and Jordan, to have opened diplomatic lines with the country. Other key Middle Eastern states such as Oman, Egypt and Bahrain have also shown support for the UAE’s decision, implying that India’s longstanding relationship with Israel won’t be a hindrance when engaging with Arab and Gulf states, where people with Indian heritage constitute an important part of the population.

This move by the UAE will also serve as a catalyst for other Middle Eastern states to follow suit. For instance, Saudi Arabia may become one of the next states to normalise relations with Israel considering that it would be an opportunity to further improve its relations with the US, and pursue its strategic interests in its relationships with Turkey and Iran.

If this materialises, India will be able to freely engage with Israel and its key Arab partners without needing to walk on a tightrope. However, challenges remain for India in the region, particularly with respect to Palestine.

From the Palestinian point-of-view, the UAE has not only failed to slow moves toward annexation, something that would dash any remaining Palestinian hopes of establishing an independent state, but it also undermined any Arab consensus on recognising Israel only in return for concessions in peace talks.

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However, given the current circumstances, India has shown its remarkable diplomatic capabilities by striking a balance in its engagements with Israel and Palestine. In 2014, India chose to pursue a de-hyphenation policy, aiming to deal with both Israel and Palestine in an independent manner, despite the adversarial relationship between them.

During the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has continued to balance its ties with Israel and Palestine. In 2017, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, only a few months after hosting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

By doing this, India tried to send a clear message that diplomatic ties can be maintained with Israel while supporting the Palestinian cause.

However, this also means that India will continue to stay firmly with its de-hyphenation policy, meaning its closeness with Israel will be limited. In 2017, India also voted against recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Then, in 2018, New Delhi decided to review its Palestine policy when the Palestinian ambassador to Pakistan was photographed sharing the stage with Hafiz Saeed, chief of Sunni Islamic extremist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba. This shows India’s flexibility in engaging with both Israel and Palestine, but also that it requires India to keep both at arm’s length diplomatically.

The decision of the UAE and Israel to normalise relations indicates a positive opportunity for India to engage more freely with its strategic partners in the Middle East. Furthermore, the move may significantly improve the security environment of a region where millions of Indian citizens work.

However, despite the opportunities involved in the decision, India will face a challenge balancing its position on Palestine with closer relations with Israel. India’s ability to do so serves as a powerful diplomatic tool to pursue its strategic interests in the region, but as it continues to pursue its strategic ambitions, it may be forced to make a difficult choice between the two.

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