In a historic first, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee will visit Israel and Palestine next week. It will be the first-ever visit by an Indian head of state to these two countries. In spite of sharing 23 years of diplomatic ties and working closely on defence, counter-terrorism, agriculture and energy related issues with Israel, no Indian prime minister or president has ever visited the country.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to become the first prime minister of India to visit Israel later this year. Modi had visited Israel as the chief minister of Gujarat in 2006. And as the prime minister, he had met his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly annual session last year.
A hallmark of Modi’s foreign policy has been a self-confident assertion of Indian interests. This is reflected in his government’s moves vis-à-vis Israel, marking a distinct break from unnecessary and counterproductive diffidence of the past. When it comes to India’s Israel policy, hypocrisy has been the norm. Just last year, Israel’s actions in Gaza were deemed so unacceptable by Indian parliamentarians that all perspective was lost. Calling for suspension of military purchases from Israel, the CPI-M’s Sitaram Yechury had suggested that “India cannot be a party to this genocide”. Demanding that a resolution condemning the attacks be passed by the Rajya Sabha, leader of opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad attacked the government saying it was regrettable that New Delhi did not raise its voice against the “massacre”. Ahmed Hassan of the Trinamool Congress wanted India to raise the issue at the United Nations, and the CPI’s D Raja called for a “categorical stand condemning Israel”.
Despite representing a nation that is one of the biggest victims of cross-border terrorism in the world, our esteemed members of Parliament had no compunction in equating the actions of a liberal-democratic Israel with the murderous extremism of a terrorist organisation such as Hamas.
Couched in the humanitarian concern for the plight of Gaza residents, the opposition did its best to play to the gallery, insinuating that because of the BJP government, religious motives cannot be far behind. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, in her reply, had done well to remind her colleagues in the opposition that India’s relations with Palestine and Israel were a legacy of previous governments, including the Congress-led UPA government of the recent past.
There has been a steady strengthening of India’s relationship with Israel ever since the two established full diplomatic relations in 1992. In contrast to the back-channel security ties that existed before the normalisation of bilateral relations, India has been more willing in recent years to carve out a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship with Israel, including deepening military ties and countering the threat terrorism poses to the two societies.
Over the years, the Indian government has also toned down its reactions to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. India has also begun denouncing Palestinian suicide bombings and other terrorist acts in Israel, something that was seen earlier as rather justified in light of the Israeli policies against the Palestinians. India is no longer initiating anti-Israel resolutions at the UN and has made serious attempts to moderate the NAM’s (Non-Aligned Movement) anti-Israel resolutions.
This re-evaluation has been based on a realisation that India’s largely pro-Arab stance in the Middle East has not been adequately rewarded by the Arab world.
India has received no worthwhile backing from the Arab countries in the resolution of problems it faces in its neighbourhood, especially Kashmir. There have been no serious attempts by the Arab world to put pressure on Pakistan to reign in the cross-border insurgency in Kashmir. On the contrary, the Arab nations have firmly stood by Pakistan, using the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) to build support for Islamabad and the jihadi groups in Kashmir. If Arab nations, such as Jordan, have been able to keep their traditional ties with Palestine intact while building a new relationship with Israel, there is no reason for India not to take a similar route, which might give it more room for diplomatic manoeuvring.
In fact, it was recently revealed that since the beginning of 2014, representatives from Israel and Saudi Arabia have had five secret meetings to discuss a common foe, Iran. Though Saudi Arabia still doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and Israel has yet to accept a Saudi-initiated peace offer to create a Palestinian state, this has not prevented the two from working together to thwart a strategic threat that they both feel strongly about.
Keeping India’s wider strategic interests in perspective, successive Indian governments since the early 1990s have walked a nuanced line between expressing genuine concern for the Palestinian cause and expanding its commercial and defence ties with Israel. India is the world’s largest buyer of Israeli weaponry and was Israel’s third largest trading partner in Asia in 2013, just after China and Hong Kong.
The domestic political milieu continues to exert its substantial influence on the trajectory of India-Israel relations. Israel has been a good friend of India but New Delhi continues to be shy of demonstrating its friendship. At crucial times, when India needed Israeli help, it got it unreservedly. Israel was willing to continue and even step up its arms sales to India after other major states curbed their technological exports following India’s May 1998 nuclear tests. Israel provided India much-needed imagery about Pakistani positions using its UAVs during the Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999 that was instrumental in turning the war around for India. When India was planning to undertake a limited military strike against Pakistan in June 2002 as part of “Operation Parakram”, Israel supplied hardware through special planes. The terrorism that both India and Israel face comes not only from disaffected groups within their territories; it is also aided and abetted by neighbouring states, increasingly capable of transferring weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organisations.
And yet, previous governments had been reticent in acknowledging Israel’s partnership. In diplomacy, public affirmation of friendships at the highest level is often as important as drawing red lines for adversaries. After a major outreach to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Modi government is taking a leap forward in its ties with Israel in the belief that an open relationship with Israel serves India well and that it’s about time Tel Aviv gets the recognition it deserves from New Delhi.
~ Harsh V. Pant, Professor of International Relations at King’s College, London