In a historic first for an Indian head of state, President Pranab Mukherjee will tour Israel and Palestine next week. Despite sharing 23 years of diplomatic ties and working closely on defence, counterterrorism, agriculture and energy related issues, no Indian Prime Minister or President has ever visited Israel.
Narendra Modi is also likely to become the first Prime Minister of India to visit Israel later this year. Modi had visited the country as Gujarat CM in 2006. As PM, 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 confident assertion of Indian interests, reflected in his government’s moves vis-a-vis Israel, marking a break from a counterproductive diffidence of the 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 relationship with Israel, including deepening military ties and countering the threat of terrorism.
Over the years, India 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 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 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 has been no serious attempt by the Arab world to put pressure on Pakistan to rein in the cross-border insurgency in Kashmir. On the contrary, they have firmly stood by Pakistan, using the Organisation of Islamic Conference to build support for Islamabad and 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 that might give it more room for diplomatic manoeuvring.
It was recently revealed that since 2014, Israeli and Saudi representatives have had five secret meetings to discuss a common foe, Iran. Though Saudi Arabia still doesn’t recognise 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 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 commercial and defence ties with Israel. India is the 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. Israel was willing to continue and even step up arms sales to India after other major states curbed their technological exports following India’s May 1998 nuclear tests. Israel provided India imagery about Pakistani positions using its UAVs during the Kargil War with Pakistan. 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 both nations face comes not only from disaffected groups within their territories; it is also aided by neighbours, increasingly capable of transferring weapons of mass destruction to terror outfits.
And yet previous governments had been reticent in acknowledging Israel’s partnership. In diplomacy, public affirmation of friendships at the highest levels is often as vital as drawing red lines for adversaries. After a major outreach to the UAE, the Modi government is taking a leap forward in its ties with Israel in the belief that an open relationship serves India well and that it’s time Tel Aviv got the recognition it deserves from New Delhi.
Pant is a professor in international relations, King’s College, London