Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to become the first Indian head of government to visit Israel, as he embarks on a three-day visit to celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. India’s envoy to Tel Aviv, Ambassador Pavan Kapoor, said this visit shows that India is not “bashful” about Israel anymore, and this trip is the official “coming out” of the India – Israel relationship. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was the first Israeli head to visit India in 2003.
The fact that it has taken 25 years for an Indian prime minister to visit Israel has been one of the more significant fallacies of Indian foreign policy, famous for kowtowing obsolete Cold War era ideas in a time when the ‘India story’ is one of the most marketed global economic phenomenon. India’s economic heft and political aptitude in the international arena of the 21st century has demanded a more robust foreign policy structure, with New Delhi’s relations with Jerusalem being one of the most prominent victims of India’s own lack of confidence over its own place in the global order.
Modi’s visit to Israel was inevitable, with not just the prime minister, but his party, the BJP, and its supporters viewing the Jewish state almost as a premiere example of how a nationalistic, majoritarian and militarised nation should be
Modi’s visit to Israel was inevitable, with not just the prime minister, but his party, the BJP, and its supporters viewing the Jewish state almost as a premiere example of how a nationalistic, majoritarian and militarised nation should be. “Earlier one heard about Israel doing such a thing, now the country has seen that the Indian Army is no less,” Modi had commented in the aftermath of what we know today as the ‘surgical strike’ against Pakistan in 2016. The 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, that saw the Jewish Chabad House also attacked, converged India and Israel over the issue of terrorism faster than anything else previously, and Israel capitalized on this fast.
Despite the overtures, and the well-marketed commonalities between India and Israel led by the narratives of both nations being victims of cross-border terrorism, the development of this “special” bond historically has predominantly been one-way traffic. Israel has not shied away from aiding India even when New Delhi had blocked its own self-interests over more than often unreasonable stance on the issue of Palestine, keeping its domestic politics in mind. For example, during the war of 1971 against Pakistan, India under Indira Gandhi found itself alienated from the international community, and during this phase, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Golda Meir intervened to clandestinely provide much needed ammunition to the Indian Army’s strained reserves (Gary Bass’s book ‘Blood Telegram’ is a recommended read). This was termed as a “surprising minor success”, while in fact it was a glaring testimony of Israel and Meir’s outlook towards a largely ambivalent India.
While Modi, on the eve of his departure, reiterated India’s backing of a two-state solution via peaceful negotiations, his trip will attempt to correct long-standing fallacies that have plagued India’s approach towards Israel. While counter-terrorism and defense are the topics that command majority of the discussions here, it is imperative to remember that it is in fact, Israel’s all-encompassing advanced technologies sector, which is the most appealing. Mixed with the country’s more than liberal approach to collaborate with India in areas that usually require years long negotiations, often leading to compromises by New Delhi to drive the said deals through, the opportunity is ripe for New Delhi to build ‘tech bridges’ for the future.
Israel, in general, in the defense sector is becoming India’s premiere choice. From weaponised drones to sourcing critical components for the Indian Air Force’s deal with France for the Dassault Rafale fighter jets, it has become the country’s third largest supplier of military equipment having bagged 10 deals worth $1 billion over the past three years. Beyond military hardware, cooperation on intelligence and counter-terrorism is going to become a pivotal classroom to share with Jerusalem, specifically on issues such as fighting against the influence of ISIS, whose demise in Iraq and Syria is being greatly exaggerated, based only on territorial losses and not ideological ones.
Other areas such as agriculture, artificial intelligence, IT, health, education and public works need to be given equal amount of importance for a healthy, long-term and mutually beneficial economic front for both states.
However, the challenge lies in taking the India – Israel dynamics beyond the defense sphere, and not bottling up all the narratives around one sector. With India’s economic growth requiring external technological intervention, and Israel’s own economy dependent on exports of technology, other areas such as agriculture, artificial intelligence, IT, health, education and public works need to be given equal amount of importance for a healthy, long-term and mutually beneficial economic front for both states. Putting all the eggs in one basket of defense can have bilateral repercussions in the future, such as India’s relations with Russia as it stands today, being disproportionately tilted towards the defense sector and in some sense balanced purely on that front.
Beyond the economic front, the political aspect of this visit is equally, if not more, significant. India’s attempts to de-hyphenate the Israel - Palestine issues is a welcome move (Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas visited New Delhi last month). It also comes on the back of the fact that New Delhi, with its global drive to highlight the narrative of state-sponsored terrorism by Pakistan, is at odds with what Hamas stands for today. This is why we have seen fewer instances of India raising concerns over Israel’s heavy-handedness in Gaza or the West Bank over the past few years. Along with Palestine, India’s economic growth and growing global political footprint allows it for greater cooperation with Israel without being pressured to do otherwise by its Arab allies.
The fact that the compass of demand for oil and gas has now shifted away from the West to the East gives India an edge to control the narrative over its West Asia policies more than ever before, with more advantage over the likes of Riyadh on one side and Tehran on the other. This allows India to make management of the three poles of power in the region; Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel an easier task as far as its own interests are concerned.
Modi’s visit is going to herald a new phase of India – Israel relations, one that for the time being will in all likeliness be more transactional than strategic. However, it places both the countries on a more level playing field, finally bearing fruit for Israel’s relentless and patient pursuit to court greater attention from New Delhi.