A friend in deed

In a historic first, the Indian president, Pranab Mukherjee, visited Israel and Palestine recently. Despite sharing 23 years of diplomatic ties and working closely on defence, counter-terrorism, agriculture and energy-related issues, no Indian prime minister or president had ever visited Israel before.

By Harsh V. Pant
  • Published 24.10.15

In a historic first, the Indian president, Pranab Mukherjee, visited Israel and Palestine recently. Despite sharing 23 years of diplomatic ties and working closely on defence, counter-terrorism, agriculture and energy-related issues, no Indian prime minister or president had ever visited Israel before.

Narendra Modi is also 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. As prime minister, Modi had met his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the sidelines of the annual session of the United Nations general assembly last year.

A hallmark of Modi's foreign policy has been a confident assertion of Indian interests. This is reflected in his government's moves vis-à-vis Israel, thereby marking a distinct break from the 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 the suspension of military purchases from Israel, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s Sitaram Yechury had suggested that "India cannot be a party to this genocide." Demanding that the Rajya Sabha passes a resolution condemning the attacks, the leader of the 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 Trinamul Congress wanted India to raise the issue at the UN, while the Communist Party of India'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 have had no compunction in equating the actions of a liberal, democratic Israel with the extremism of a terrorist organization such as Hamas.

Couched in the humanitarian concern for the plight of Gaza's residents, the Opposition did its best to play to the gallery, insinuating that religious motives cannot be far behind when it comes to the Bharatiya Janata Party government. In her reply, the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, had done well to remind her colleagues in the Opposition that India's relationships with Palestine and Israel were a legacy of previous governments, including the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance dispensation.

There has been a steady strengthening of India's relationship with Israel ever since the two nations established full diplomatic relations in 1992. In contrast to the back-channel security ties that existed before the normalization of bilateral relations, India has been more than 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 to be 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 Non-Aligned Movement's anti-Israel resolutions. This re-evaluation has been based on a realization 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 the problems it faces in its neighbourhood, especially Kashmir. There have been no serious attempts by the Arab world to put pressure on Pakistan to rein in the cross-border insurgency in Kashmir. On the contrary, the Arab nations have firmly stood by Pakistan, using the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 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 does not recognize Israel's right to exist and Israel is yet to accept a Saudi-initiated peace offer to create a Palestinian nation state, this has not prevented the two nations 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 after China and Hong Kong.

The domestic political milieu continues to exert a 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 nations curbed their technological exports following India's nuclear tests in May 1998. Israel provided India much-needed imagery about Pakistani positions using its unmanned aerial vehicles during the Kargil war, something 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 organizations.

Yet, previous governments had been reticent in acknowledging Israel's partnership. In diplomacy, public affirmation of friendship at the highest levels is often as important as drawing red lines for adversaries. After a major outreach to the United Arab Emirates, the Centre is taking a leap forward in its ties with Israel in the belief that an open relationship with Israel serves India well. It is about time Tel Aviv gets the recognition that it deserves from New Delhi.

The author is Professor of International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College, London