NEW DELHI: For the first time, the bloc of emerging economics is considering a proposal to actively mediate in one of the world's most intractable conflict - the Israel-Palestine dispute. China and Russia have been trying to convince India to get on board in plan, so that BRICS becomes directly involved in bringing Israel and Palestine to resume their peace process.
It is learned that the China’s special envoy for Middle East issue Gong Xiaosheng held discussions with senior MEA officials on this proposal. Sources said that the proposal was for BRICS to take on a role similar to that of the so-called Quartet – European Union, UN, Russia and US, by setting up a group of secretary-level officers as a first step.
“It’s mainly a Chinese and Russian initiative. The Chinese are keen about it. They have been going around the capitals to create consensus,” a senior government official told Sunday Standard.
The proposal comes as Russia, China – and India – are increasingly turning their attention to West Asia. Simultaneously, the volatile region is also looking to other powers to act as 'honest brokers' in the face of perceived decline in influence of US in West Asia.
High-level sources said that an understanding on the proposal could be reached as early as March. “If agreed, this will be the first political initiative taken by BRICS,” he said. So far, BRICS’s major achievements have in economic sector, setting up New Development Bank and Contingent Reserves Arrangement.
If the proposal is accepted by all BRICS members, it would mark a tectonic shift in geo-political terms in the region, where US and West have been main influential external actors.
In 2011, India, Brazil and South Africa had made an attempt to intervene in at the preliminary stages of the Syrian civil war by sending a delegation to meet President Bashar Al-Assad. It took place when all three nations were in UN Security Council as non-permanent member. That initiative ended early.
With only a couple of weeks into 2016, India has already stepped up its engagement with its extended western neighbourhood. External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s first foreign tour in 2016 was to Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Her second one is to Bahrain to attend the first India-Arab ministerial conference on January 23-24. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia after the end of the budget session in Parliament, with Iran, Israel and Palestine also likely to see Air India One land on their tarmacs this year.
During her trip last week, Swaraj was asked by Palestinian leadership at the highest level to convey their message to Israel that they are ready for talks for a two-state nation on 1967 borders. “The Palestinians have got over the UNHRC vote. Now, they would like to use our supposed closeness to Israel,” said a senior government official.
He was referring to India's surprise abstention during the vote for Palestine-backed resolution in United Nations Human Rights Council against Israel for alleged war crimes during the 2014 Gaza invasion.
Swaraj conveyed the Palestinian's message to the Israelis. “They (Israelis) said that they are ready, but would like Palestinian authority to stop preaching ‘hate’ in their schools and curb terror activity. Basically, this is like what we tell the Pakistanis,” he said.
Of course, Palestine authority has limited control over Hamas’s activity and Gaza strip – with efforts to forge a national unity government coming to naught, so far.
Meanwhile, Chinese president Xi Jinping will conclude his unprecedented Middle-east tour on Sunday, after trips to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. During Xi's sojourn, the Chinese brought up the Silk road initiative repeatedly to emphasise the economic aspect.
But, China's new activism in West Asia is also, perhaps, spurred by an element of vulnerability over US dominance over sea lanes in the region, even as American presence increases in Asia-Pacific.
Israel and Palestine have also nurtured relations with Russia. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was in Russia just three months ago. That was his third bilateral visit to Moscow in 2015.
Abbas was following in the footsteps of Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s emergency trip to Russia on September 11. Netanyahu’s visit was mainly in response to Russian airstrikes in Syria, but it nevertheless underscored the new dynamics in West Asia.
With their own foreign policy pre-occupations, it is not surprising that neither Russia or China are willing to go alone or even together to wade into the intractable conflict. From that view, the BRICS grouping -with its faint echo of NAM diplomacy – would be a natural platform to be propped up in the region.
India will be key in getting the BRICS proposal off the ground, as New Delhi - more than Brazil and South Africa - has geographic, cultural and historical ties with the region, with a unique asset of seven million strong Diaspora.
“We are still considering the proposal. It is certainly worth reflection,” said the senior government official.
A perusal of joint statements since the first summit in Russia in 2009 have shown a progressive stronger interest by BRICS in Middle East, including Israel-Palestine.
In fact, the first two summits in Yektarinburg and Brasilia made no mention to the conflict, while the next three ones did give space to Israel-Palestine conflict in the joint statement – but the language was mainly repetitive.
BRICS called for resumption of negotiations, even as they consistently criticized Israeli settlement act
In 2014, BRICS described resolution of Israel-Palestine conflict as a “fundamental component for building a sustainable peace in the Middle East”. This was modified in 2015 statement, which termed any resolution of Israel-Palestine conflict as leading to “positive outcome of other crises in the region and to the promotion of sustainable peace in the Middle East”