An ideological impetus has been given to a growing, albeit difficult, relationship.
It was an announcement which was expected from the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office. It has always been a question of when, and not if, Modi would visit Israel. And, yet, the announcement of the Prime Minister’s trip to Israel later this year comes at a time when it makes the least diplomatic sense and when the costs may well be high. For a Prime Minister who wears his “realism” on his sleeve, this appears to be a deeply ideological move driven by his and his party’s solidarity with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the State of Israel. For Modi, this will be his second visit to Israel; he had gone there earlier as the Chief Minister of Gujarat.
It is ironical that at the very moment that Israel, under the leadership of Netanyahu, faces the greatest international isolation in its existence, Prime Minister Modi has decided to expend political capital on Israel. Given this reality, it is really difficult, despite the contortions of India’s foreign policy experts to do so, to explain this decision without accounting for Modi and Netanyahu’s shared “common enemy.”
Yet, India–Israel relations have had a cross-spectrum support in India. It was under then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao that India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. It was during the United Front government of H D Deve Gowda (with a communist home minister to boot) that India made its first major defence purchase from Israel (the Barak surface to air missiles). It was during the previous National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee that defence relations were ratcheted up many degrees and Israel’s then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited India.
Even if India–Israel relations were kept away from the glare of the media during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) period, government to government relations prospered. Bilateral trade has grown significantly in the decade of UPA rule and Israel has opened technology missions and projects in India related to agriculture and water conservation. One of the significant sectors in bilateral trade has been diamonds and a few dozen Indian diamond merchants (a demographic which has been a loyal supporter of Narendra Modi) have a significant presence in Israel’s diamond exchange.
Defence cooperation has also grown with Israel supplying India with unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, missiles, airborne early warning radars and various other arms and armaments. There have also been training and operational cooperation as well as intelligence sharing. It also needs to be remembered that India’s defence cooperation with Israel has been recorded from at least the time of the India–China war of 1962. India was again helped by Israel in 1965 and 1971 while India helped Israel during 1967. Even if all these were done covertly, they laid the foundations of India’s relations with Israel.
Added to this has been the layer of human relations, with a few thousand Israeli tourists coming to India each year and many Indians going to Israel to visit the Christian holy sites. Taken together these have put India–Israel relations on a foundation from where trade and defence cooperation can only grow. Despite this growing relationship, India has been able to, with a few missteps, keep its pro-Palestinian diplomatic position intact over the past two decades, even if that relation has become more ritualistic than substantive.
In the last two decades, Israel has pushed for a maximalist position with regard to Palestine and by its aggressive settlement policy, brazen war crimes and diplomatic squeeze on the Palestinian Authority, has rendered the two-state solution largely obsolete. Not just its strong supporters in Europe but even large parts of the United States’ establishment are distancing themselves from Israel’s “hard line” position and the visibly vulgar display of racist oppression of the Palestinians. The Boycott–Divest–Sanction (BDS) campaign has gained unprecedented support among people even in countries where Israel has traditionally enjoyed popular backing.
Given the present dispensation in/of the Government of India, it would be quite futile to talk in terms of principles and human rights and that Israel stands accused of a colonial occupation of Palestine. Prime Minister Modi would, on the contrary, perhaps feel happy to learn some “tricks of the trade” from its new best friend, all in the name of fighting “terrorism.” While Israel does provide some important defence inputs and scientific collaborations, there does not seem to be any gain for India’s strategic position from the type of visibility and rise in profile a prime ministerial visit will give it. Prime Minister Modi seems to be putting the achievements that a few generations of realist foreign policy have accrued to the Indian State by insisting on coating a thick layer of ideological solidarity on this delicate relationship.
It would therefore be futile to remember that Mahatma Gandhi had called the manner in which Israel was formed by the forcible dislocation of the Palestinians and their large scale killings a “crime against humanity” and “naked terrorism”. Rather than use India’s growing collaboration with Israel to push for justice to the Palestinians, the ominous signs are that the Modi government will learn how to better militarise civil disputes and further securitise the State.
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