Make it demonstrative

INDIA-ISRAEL TIES

Further cementing the goodwill generated by the visit of President Pranab Mukherjee to Israel and Palestine some three months back, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited West Asia earlier this week. Her visit has paved the way for a possible visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to India later this year and it is also likely that Prime Minister Narendra Modi may also pay a return visit to Tel Aviv.

A hallmark of Modi government’s foreign policy has been a self-confident assertion of Indian interests. This is reflected in his government’s moves vis-à-vis Israel, marking a distinct break from unnecessary and counterproductive diffidence of the past. Despite sharing 24 years of diplomatic ties and working closely on defence, counter- terrorism, agriculture and energy related issues, no Indian Prime Minister or President had visited Israel till Pranab Mukherjee’s visit last year.

When it comes to India’s Israel policy, hypocrisy has been the norm. Sushma Swaraj has done well to remind the world that India’s relations with Palestine and Israel have been a legacy of previous governments, including the Congress-led UPA government of the recent past. The BJP government has no incentive to view the region through a religious prism as some of its critics have alleged. So far, there is no evidence that this has been the case.
There has been a steady strengthening of India's relationship with Israel ever since the two established full diplomatic relations in 1992. It is a tribute to Narasimha Rao’s foresight that he was able to lay the basis of Indo-Israeli partnership. 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 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 as rather justified in the 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 West Asia 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 have been no serious attempts by the Arab world to put pressure on Pakistan to reign in the cross-border insurgency in Kashmir.

On the contrary, the Arab nations have firmly stood by Pakistan, using the Organisation of Islamic Conference to build support for Islamabad and the jihadi groups in Kashmir. If the 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 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 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, just after China and Hong Kong.

Domestic political milieu
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. 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 major states curbed their technological exports following India's May 1998 nuclear tests.

Israel provided India the much-needed imagery about Pakistani positions using its UAVs during the Kargil War with Pakistan in 1999 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 the neighbouring states, increasingly capable of transferring weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organisations.

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 important as drawing red lines for adversaries. Modi government is doing well by repudiating the discredited Israel policy of its predecessors.

An open relationship with Israel serves India well and it’s about time Tel Aviv gets the recognition it deserves from New Delhi. Sushma Swaraj’s visit has made it clear that even as India will try to balance its commitments vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine, New Delhi and Tel Aviv will continue to work towards evolving a more robust partnership that spans across various sectors and is not unidimensional.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King’s College London)

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