Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s India visit which comes within months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s path-breaking visit to Israel marks an interesting template for the bilateral relations. If the July visit set the political tone, this visit adds substance for the future. The second prime ministerial visit to India comes nearly 15 years after Atal Behari Vajpayee rolled out red carpet welcome to Ariel Sharon.
While strategic and economic relations have flourished since the establishment of diplomatic relations in January 1992, Indo-Israeli political engagements have been minimal and often happened when NDA government was in power. Until Modi’s election, for example, only two External Affairs Ministers visited Israel, Jaswant Singh in July 2000 and S M Krishna in January 2012. Reciprocal visits from India did not materialise after the visits of President Ezer Weizman in 1996-97 and of Sharon in 2003.
For over two decades, the bilateral relations flourished or were allowed to flourish with little political exchanges between the two countries. Coalition compulsions under the UPA government and the geostrategic situation in the Middle East limited cabinet level exchanges between the two countries. During this phase much of the relations thrived because of various state governments—ruled by Congress, BJP and others, including the communist parties, who stepped and sought economic cooperation with the Jewish State.
Things changed dramatically since Modi became the prime minister. In tune with his more active engagement with foreign leaders, both bilaterally and multilaterally, Indo-Israeli engagements also expanded considerably. Since May 2014, there were two presidential visits, two prime ministerial visits and visits by External Affairs Minister, Defense Minister and Home Minister.
There were scores of other exchanges, meetings and social media exchanges and interactions between the two political leadership.
These interactions with Israel should not be seen in isolation but viewed within the larger context of Modi’s extensive interactions with other Middle East countries.
Since 2014, Indian leaders --president, vice-president, prime minister or external affairs minister—have visited most of the countries. War-torn countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon saw the visit by MoS M J Akbar. Indeed, violence-torn Libya is the only country which did not see a political visit from India since 2014. Moreover, Prime Minister Modi had met a number of Arab-Islamic leaders during multilateral forums and he met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas twice, including hosting him in May last year.
Another interesting pattern is emerging in the Indo-Israel relations. For long military-security consideration has dominated the bilateral relations and is often seen as the core component. Important as they are, the relations are getting diversified and encompass soft, less hyper and even unattractive areas, such as agriculture and water management. The joint statement issued on Monday between the two countries, for example, talks of “strategic cooperation in Agriculture and Water.” Until now these issues would never make it to the front pages of the media or would have escaped popular attention.
This in practical terms means that Indo-Israeli relations are no longer elite issues to be confined to the national capitals or urban centers but are pushed to rural India. This decentralisation has been taking place for over two decades but now they have assumed the center stage of the bilateral relations.
In short, security would continue to play an important role in the Indo-Israeli relations but its meaning and scope have changed. It is no longer confined to military security and fighting terrorism but also encompasses, food security, water security, environmental security and above energy security. This transformation of the Indo-Israeli ties would play a key role in the coming years.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).