How time became ripe for Israel visit

Arab twists and turns insulate tour

By Charu Sudan Kasturi in Jerusalem
  • Published 4.07.17
  •  
Benjamin Netanyahu with wife Sara on a tour aboard the US aircraft carrier, USS George H.W. Bush, as it docks at the Haifa port in Israel on Monday. (AP)

Jerusalem, July 3: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to underscore the reluctance of his predecessors to visit Israel during his trip here starting tomorrow. But it has taken more than personal "boldness" to realise Modi's most historic diplomatic visit yet.

A carefully calibrated West Asia policy and shifts in Middle Eastern politics have enabled circumstances ripe for an Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel for the first time without seriously damaging ties with Arab partners, senior officials and experts have said.

Despite foreign minister Sushma Swaraj announcing in 2015 that Modi would visit Israel, the Prime Minister first travelled to both Saudi Arabia and Iran - the two other powers in the region. He is visiting Israel in his fourth year in office.

Modi's visit will also follow a series of increasingly public diplomatic overtures by key Arab nations to Israel despite refusing to initiate diplomatic relations with the Jewish state till a separate Palestinian country is formed. Worries about their reaction to Indian warmth towards Israel have long been a key factor in India's West Asia calculations.

Finally, the market India offers, and the deep trade and investment ties New Delhi has built with Arab capitals mean they too will lose by a worsening of bilateral relations.

"I don't think there will be any major impact on India's relations with the Arab nations - or Iran for that matter," Nicolas Blarel, assistant professor of international relations at Leiden University in the Netherlands and the author of the 2014 book, The Evolution of India's Israel Policy, told The Telegraph in a telephone interview. "There may be a few symbolic noises from some Arab diplomats in New Delhi, but I doubt you will see any real rupture."

Modi, already the most widely travelled Indian Prime Minister, has visited more countries in his first three years in office than his predecessor Manmohan Singh did in five. But none of his previous visits symbolised the dramatic shift in India's approach to a key partner as much as his trip here will.

On Monday, Mark Sofer, former Israel ambassador to India, and currently the deputy director general at Israel's foreign office, in charge of relations with Asia and the Pacific, recalled an Indian statement of intent that long rankled here. Till the early 1990s, the Indian passport explicitly said it was valid in all countries except Israel. Even South Africa, on the cusp of ending Apartheid, was exempt. "I don't think you can overstate how huge the journey has been, from there to now, when the Indian PM is visiting," Sofer said.

On previous foreign visits, the Indian Prime Minister has not shied away from subtly accusing his predecessors of ignoring important relationships. He questioned on these visits why no Indian Prime Minister had visited Canada on a bilateral trip in 42 years, and Sri Lanka and Australia in 28 years. Last month, when he travelled to Portugal, he asked why no previous Indian Prime Minister had visited the country.

But with Israel, while Modi has demonstrated more public willingness to embrace the relationship than any earlier Indian Prime Minister, that has also been facilitated in part by changes in the Arab world's own approach to Israel.

Egypt has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1978, but it is now that the relationship is beginning to thaw. In September 2015, Israel reopened a tiny diplomatic mission in Egypt after shutting it following an attack during the Arab Spring. In December 2016, Egypt withdrew a UN resolution critical of Israel.

Saudi Arabia is a traditional enemy of Israel's. But in January, its former intelligence chief Prince Turki al Faisal met Israel's former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. In May, The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia was mulling a plan to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel. Last month, Israel supported Saudi Arabia over its moves against Qatar, and the appointment of Crown Prince Salman as the king-in-waiting.

Jordan and Israel are together trying to revive the Dead Sea - which is actually dying.

"Our assessment is that many Arab countries are themselves engaging more and more with Israel," said Amar Sinha, who retired as secretary (economic relations) in the foreign ministry last week after leading India's preparations for Modi's Israel visit. "They may not show it the way we do, but they're at it," he added, speaking at a seminar on the eve of Modi's trip.

History and economics also stand with India. In 1992, when India established full diplomatic relations with Israel, many Arab countries had publicly criticised the move. But none of them curtailed economic relations with India.

Today, India's economy is seven times what it was in 1992 - and counts the UAE and Saudi Arabia as two of its top five trading partners. "I can't see them jeopardising what they have with India," Blarel said.