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After 25 years, Israeli-Indian relations appear to be coming of age

Nov 24, 2016 | Gareth Narunsky

After 25 years
President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi

After nearly a quarter century of diplomatic ties, Israeli-Indian relations have come of age.

The growing closeness between the two countries was nowhere more evident than during Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s visit to the subcontinent last week, where he and his delegation of business leaders and academics were warmly welcomed. Discussions between Rivlin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi further emphasised the strengthening bond between the nations, punctuated by the two men embracing one another at their joint media conference.

Some of the highlights of their discussions included:

  • Modi’s stating that India supports Israel “every place where international agencies take decisions against you that you see as absurd” – He has backed this with action somewhat, changing India’s long-held anti-Israel voting patterns at the United Nations to abstaining, though as Souptik Mukherjee argues, India’s abstention at the recent UNESCO vote denying Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and Western Wall in Jerusalem could be interpreted as consent;
  • Modi’s assurance that despite its own good relations with Iran, the Islamic Republic’s threats to destroy Israel “shall not come to pass“;
  • Modi vowing to expand defence and security ties with Israel;
  • The two leaders agreeing to expand partnerships in manufacturing and production;
  • Modi inviting Israeli investment in the Indian hi-tech sector; and
  • Israel’s assurance that it will support India’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) bid.

The two countries also signed a US $1.4 billion contract for Israel’s IAI to supply two Phalcon/IL-76 Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) and 10 Heron TP unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) to India.

As noted by Rivlin when speaking to reporters in New Delhi, perhaps as significant as the content of the discussions themselves “is the very public way that India is displaying its strong relationship with Israel”.

The shared history of the two nations goes back in fact to before either was sovereign. During the First World War, Indian troops were instrumental in liberating Haifa, now a major Israeli city. But although India and Israel became independent nations within a year of each other in 1947 and 1948 respectively, it was not until 1992, under Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, that the two countries established full diplomatic ties.

In 2000, Deputy Indian Prime Minister LK Advani and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh visited Israel, while Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India in 2003. However a year later, the election of the centre-left United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in India saw the fledgling ties moved behind closed doors.

Narendra Modi’s election in 2014 promised an upgrade in the relationship. Whilst Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat for 13 years, the now Prime Minister played a major role in developing bilateral ties with the Jewish state. He attended an agricultural technology conference in Israel in 2006 and actively pursued Israeli technology and industry. Israel invested billions into Gujarat, through mutual development of solar and thermal power, pharmaceuticals, water recycling, water desalination plants and industrial research and development.

That promise is now being realised with diplomatic activity warming up. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Modi at the United Nations General Assembly in 2014 and then-Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon visited India in February last year. Last October, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel and addressed the Knesset. He also met former Prime Minister and President Shimon Peres and was full of praise for the late statesman upon his passing in late September. India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, made a high profile visit to Israel in early 2016 and Modi himself is expected to visit next year to mark the 25th anniversary of the relationship.

It seems India’s media too is enamoured with Israel. One of India’s oldest national newspapers, The Pioneer, declared in its editorial on November 18 that the relationship is “vital for our key advancements in defence and technology” and that the two countries “are emerging from the closet to become natural allies”.

It adds:

“India does not need to be cautious about its growing nearness to Israel, just for fear of offending its Arab allies in the West Asia.”

 

In the Daily Mail on November 19, journalist Kanchan Gupta admired Rueven Rivlin’s “chutzpah” in making the pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal at Agra – noting that US President Barack Obama did not because of security concerns in this predominantly Muslim city – and wrote how the Israeli President’s visit “will no doubt serve to bring India closer to Israel”.

Gutpa also noted how much Israel has brought to bilateral relations and urged India to do more, especially at the UN:

The two countries will celebrate the 25th year of diplomatic relations in 2017, a relationship that should have been forged in 1948, but was kept in abeyance because Nehru’s foreign policy had no place for Israel…
A lot has been achieved in this quarter century despite India being hesitant about walking the full distance.
Israel, on the other hand, has given unquestioningly.
We desperately needed ammunition during the Kargil conflict, Israel shipped the shells to us overnight.
We needed air-surveillance platforms, Israel provided them to us. With Russia faltering as India’s primary supplier of weaponry, Israel stepped into the gap.
A lot more can be added to the list – from agricultural and water technology to high end satellite technology and sensors on borders to monitor movements.
Yet, a distance has dogged the relationship. India has gracelessly and needlessly voted against Israel at international fora, even during the current BJP regime.
There’s a slow shift happening with India abstaining from voting against Israel at UNESCO, but that needs to become the norm.

 

It should be pointed out that India’s tilt towards Israel has not happened without the former employing the necessary sensitivities towards its relationship with the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, it was with late PA leader Yasser Arafat’s “blessing” that ties between Israel and India were forged in 1992. Modi assured PA President Mahmoud Abbas of India’s support for the Palestinian cause during a 2015 meeting and when Mukherjee visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories that same year, he began his trip in the PA-controlled areas before crossing back into Israel.

The future of the Israel-India relationship looks bright. Modi’s expected visit next year to mark 25 years of ties will be a significant political milestone, but much is already happening at other levels between the two nations.

India’s small Jewish community are a natural beneficiary of the blossoming relationship, with increased cultural and religious understanding with their Hindu neighbours. Around the same time as the Rivlin visit, an American Jewish Committee delegation participated in international interfaith dialogue in the city of Rishikesh, the latest in a program committed to enhancing Hindu-Jewish relations.

More than ten percent of foreign exchange students in Israel hail from India, while agricultural cooperation continues to expand. As of 2014, India was Israel’s tenth-largest trade partner with US $5 billion in bilateral trade. Israel’s Ariel University is looking to set up a joint research fund to promote research projects with Indian researchers.

This relationship now seems to be a key pillar of foreign policy for both Jerusalem and New Dehli – with substantial benefits to the populations of both nations.

Gareth Narunsky

 

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