For almost two years, there has been intense speculation over Narendra Modi becoming India’s first prime minister to visit Israel. Both sides have confirmed plans, analysts have discussed its scope and implications and it has even been reported that he will skip Palestine and limit his visit just to Israel.
It was recently learnt that, starting next month, Air India will fly non-stop from New Delhi to Tel Aviv connecting the two capitals ahead of Modi’s visit in June.
Whenever it happens, Modi’s visit will be an endorsement at the highest levels for close India-Israel ties and a fitting move to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two sides. Modi has already visited Israel in 2006 as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat.
It is widely known that Israel has emerged as one of India’s key defense suppliers over the years. According to one estimate, the supplies totalled $1 billion in five years.
Prof. Swaran Singh, who teaches at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and is President of Association of Asia Scholars, says India’s relations with Israel has been an open secret ever since “India came out of closet of being seen as a pro-Soviet non-aligned country in early 1990s”.
According to him, India has had enduring history of interactions with Arab states, which has expanded beyond Iraq and Iran to include new partners like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“Engaging Israel is part of India’s expanding engagement with the Middle East which remains important for India’s energy needs and presence of Indian diaspora but also increasingly for defense cooperation where Israel has emerged as a major supplier of modern technologies,” he says.
Prof. Singh hastens to add though that Modi’s period has witnessed “an impressive acceleration in India’s diplomatic footwork but not any fundamental redefinition in its foreign policy”, Prof. Singh told Al Arabiya English.
According to Harsh V. Pant, Professor of International Relations at King’s College, London, the relationship has been growing for the last two decades but for various reasons Indian governments have been reluctant to embrace Israel openly. “Modi feels no such compunction”.
“Modi has already reached out to the Arab world in a major way from the UAE to Saudi Arabia to Oman and it doesn’t look at India’s ties with Israel and the Arab world in a zero sum manner,” Pant says. According to him, as Israeli President’s recent visit to China underlined, China and India feel they can balance their ties with the Arab world, Israel and Iran effectively.
Pant has been making this argument ever since Modi came to power in 2014. In an article published in June 2015, Harsh Pant wrote: “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-a-vis Israel, marking a distinct break from unnecessary and counterproductive diffidence of the past”.
On the visit getting delayed, Pant says Middle East policy has always been a delicate balancing act for India and for Modi too the priority in first three years has been galvanizing ties with the Arab world where India has significant stakes.
“Israel has been gradually nurtured with the president of India visiting the country last year...now Modi will go after defanging the charge that his building of ties with Israel will jeopardize India’s ties with the Arab world,” he says.
Trade and security
To some the closer engagement is necessitated by the volume of trade, especially military, which has grown manifolds in recent years. Yossi Mekelberg, Program Director of International Relations at Regent’s University and Associate Fellow at Chatham’s House, MENA Program, says there is growing collaboration on security issues, but also on food, health, tourism, civil technologies and academic matters.
“It is the first state visit by an Indian prime minister and a considerable shift from the non-aligned days when India was way more critical of Israeli policies. As a result of changes in the Arab world such a visit is not criticized any longer,” says Mekelberg.
There is no denying the fact that Indo-Israel relations have gone from strength to strength and have various dimensions. Replying to a question in India’s Parliament in May last year, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said that there are considerable synergies between the two countries to realize existing potential.
“The Israeli leadership have expressed their willingness to partner in our flagship initiatives and many Israeli companies have come forward to explore prospects of collaboration with their Indian counterparts”, Swaraj said.
Dr. Adil Rasheed, Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), believes Arab countries are aware that this step is part of the present Indian government’s proactive approach in enhancing its relations with various countries in the Middle East.
“In light of this growing closeness of India with various Arab states in the region and the prime minister’s statement that he was optimistic of resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations soon, there is no need for any unwarranted apprehensions raised in some sections of the media in light of the premier’s upcoming Israel visit,” says Dr. Rasheed.
There are also those who look at this relationship from the point of view of the changing dynamics of weapons trade. In an article published by the Jerusalem Post, Kanchi Gupta, researcher for the West Asia Studies Program at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, hinted that while budget cuts and US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan have dropped Israeli arms exports to Europe and America, trade with Asian partners has increased to $600 million, more than with the US.
The Palestinian constituency
While all this is music to the ears of industry watchers, stakeholders, and those looking for greater cooperation between India and Israel, it is understandably not the same in some Palestinian quarters.
Mousa Rimawi, Director General at Palestine Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), says every visit to Israel from other state officials is encouraging Israel to continue its occupation of the Palestinian land, and violations of human rights. “Israel continues to act as a state above international law I think international relation must be build on respect of human rights,” he says.
Prof. Swaran Singh of the Jawaharlal Nehru University believes that given the strong history of strong and personal nature of India-Palestine relations, “New Delhi also has to address domestic constituencies in balancing this gradual drift from Palestine to Israel though this is being explained as opening relations with both sides”.
At the same time, India has also made it clear that it is not contemplating the role of intermediary for peaceful resolution of Israel-Palestine conflict.
“India has not been invited to participate in any such international initiative. India supports a negotiated solution resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine, with secure and recognized border, side by side at peace with Israel as endorsed in relevant UNSC resolutions,” the country’s minister of state for external affairs, Gen. VK Singh, informed the parliament in March last year.
It is obvious that few on either side, including India’s Arab allies, would disagree with that position.