Was Modi’s Israel visit ideological?

Modi Netanyahu

India’s historic departure on Israel relations is no win-win. The Jewish state gains much, while India stands to lose global goodwill thanks to this potential alliance

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel this week —  the first of its kind by an Indian PM — was historic by symbolism and substance. Israel offered a grand welcome to Modi, with Benjamin Netanyahu, his Israeli counterpart, practically taking him around the country. During his three-day stay, Modi did not bother to mention a word on Palestine. He didn’t go to Ramallah, the besieged capital of the Palestine Authority either. There was no reference to Israel’s occupation, nor the UN resolutions against the country. Modi’s message to the world was loud and clear: Israel is his government’s friend and India has moved away from the days of its staunch support to the Palestinian cause.

Last year, Number13 had a chat with a senior secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs at a hotel in a Middle Eastern city. When asked why India should continue to support the Palestinians even in the wake of surging ties with Israel, the diplomat said it was imperative for India to retain the overall balance of its “West Asia policy” (The region is called West Asia in India). “India is an emerging power and it is important to have a balanced approach towards one of the most volatile regions in the world. We have stable ties with Saudi Arabia. We need to have good ties with Iran. We need to have warm ties with Israel as well. And the moral support for Palestine is a factor in maintaining this balance,” the diplomat said.

The diplomat’s words reflected the standard position of the Indian foreign policy establishment, which, like other policy establishments, prefers status quo rather than disruption. But Prime Minister Modi, by deciding to go to Israel and only to Israel, has marked a departure from this assessment. Why did he do that? For India, Israel is a commerce and defence partner, but not a critical ally. India is not a country that’s living under any sanctions. India has a huge weapons market and the global arms manufacturers, including those in the United States, are keen to sell India weapons. (Number13 had reported earlier how India is giving multi-billion dollar orders for weapons to American arms companies before the Prime Minister’s U.S. visit). Russia remains one of India’s largest defence suppliers. So even if Israel turns away, India could source weapons and equipment from other countries.

Another aspect of this commercial ties is cooperation in the field of technology. Israel shares agricultural and irrigation technologies with India and Israeli delegations from the field visiting India is quite common. Overall, Israel is an important trading partner for India. As of 2014, the bilateral trade stood at $4.52 billion. India is Israel’s 10th largest trade partner and import source and seventh largest export source. But trade doesn’t turn bilateral relations strategic. Besides weapons and other commodities what does Israel have to offer for India? Israel doesn’t have any international clout. True, it’s backed by the United States in the UN but is opposed by most members of the UN General Assembly. It can’t offer us any diplomatic support as Israel itself is an isolated country.

But for Israel, relationship with India is critical. Israel has long been lobbying for India to come out of its historic reticence and make relations much more open. Particularly now when there’s a groundswell of opposition to Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank among world powers. Netanyahu had a particularly toxic relationship with the former U.S. President Barack Obama who ordered a vote against Israeli settlements in the last days of his office. Netanyahu realises that the Democratic Party is having a rethink about continuing to give a free hand to Israel to do whatever it wants to do against the Palestinians. If Obama could cause trouble for Israel, what will happen if Bernie Sanders or someone from his political school becomes US President? The Europeans have already turned sour. They keep attacking Netanyahu’s lack of interest in peace and the continuing settlement activities in the West Bank in defiance of the international public opinion and UN Security Council resolutions. So in the medium- to short-term, Israel needs new allies. Netanyahu had earlier tried to woo China. But the Chinese, while retaining good ties with Israel, are shy of embracing Tel Aviv as a strategic ally. And it is not a secret that Netanyahu finds a crucial ally in Modi, a Hindutva mascot and a former RSS pracharak, a right-wing organisation whose anti-Muslim stances are historically well-documented. And Modi appears to have fallen prey to this charm offensive.

The question is why did he? If he were a realist, he would have preferred status quo with Israel while retaining India’s support for Palestine. That offers India more manoeuvarability in the global geopolitical landscape. But the much publicised personal equation (repeated terming of each other friends), the overdone drama of friendship (from memorial to beach, together) and the visit to the mausoleum of Theodor Herzl, father of modern political Zionism, all suggest that there’s something more than political realism in his Israel visit. Was it Hindutva, at the expense of the country’s long-term interests?

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