Ever since the announcement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel, few have failed to reiterate the historic nature of such a visit: it will be the first by an Indian prime minister, and more suggestively, Modi will not lump even a perfunctory visit to Palestine during his two-day stay in Israel. Pace the undeniably rich symbolism, it is still difficult to discern what makes the Indian prime minister’s trip so significant.
Modi’s trip, starting on July 5, does not upend India’s decades-long policy by betraying a tilt towards the Jewish state. Shortly before leaving for Israel, Modi played host to a three-day visit by the president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, during which India took pains to reiterate that it stood firmly with the Palestinians who had some legitimate claims. A year earlier, in April 2016, India had shamelessly and inexplicably voted for a UNESCO resolution that denied Jewish ties to the Har HaBáyit. The de-hyphenation between Israel and Palestine that many are trying to see in Modi’s foreign policy is just wishful thinking.
The prime minister’s visit is supposed to usher in a new era of military cooperation and trade relations. However, those have been on the increase since relations were established in 1992, with bilateral trade in non-military goods increasing from $200 million to slightly over $4 billion last year. Military trade has ranged from the upgradation of India’s aging Soviet-built air force, drones, anti-tank missiles, surface to air missiles, and airborne early warning and control systems. Of course, trade can develop far beyond these one-off transactional deals into research partnerships and joint manufacturing. However, neither truly needs a prime ministerial visit to actualise; military needs, domestic compulsions, and market forces can precipitate such closeness.
Economically, the free trade agreement negotiations are languishing since the idea was first proposed in 2004 and negotiations started two years later. It is true that Modi’s visit could breathe life into the discussions but such agreements are too technical to be made over a handshake and a few hours with one’s foreign counterpart. The state visit could indicate seriousness to both the negotiating teams, but this should have been clear to them already from sentiments within their departments as well as the increasing warmth at least in rhetoric between the two countries.
It has been suggested that Modi’s visit will see the announcement of a slew of deals between India and Israel. Already, the two countries have been working closely on water management, agricultural technology, space research, terrorism, cyber security, medicine, and several other sectors. Additional agreements are always welcome but they indicate deals already made that were held back to be announced during the visit. Modi’s visit did not contribute to their achievement.
A state visit is an inherently political affair, and that is where the changes must be seen. While bureaucrats negotiate the terms and conditions of military and economic concords, the direction must be set by elected leaders. Modi’s visit comes at a time when the stability (sanity?) of the world order is in doubt and most countries are looking for new partnerships of mutual security. It is rumoured that Benjamin Netanyahu has cleared his schedule and plans to spend much of the two days Modi is in town ensconced with him in discussions representing the wide range of mutual interests the two states share. As India looks to develop a foothold in the Middle East, Israel is looking east for other partners.
A truly historic moment would be if India were to disassociate itself completely from the Palestinian question – it is not as if it has contributed in any meaningful way all these years. The issue does not affect India and is best left to the concerned parties to resolve, much as India insists on Kashmir. If India’s voting at international fora were to shift to reflect this new position, such a move would give Israel much diplomatic room to manoeuvre.
Another substantial transformation would be for Modi to offer Israel cooperation in nuclear energy. Like India, Israel is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and therefore ineligible for nuclear commerce internationally. Although Netanyahu has said that Israel is not interested in nuclear energy, his Ministry of Power has something different to say in their projections of the Israeli energy scenario through to 2050. India is the perfect country to understand why a state would want to remain out of the non-proliferation cabal and it cooperation in such a sensitive area would be a true indicator of how seriously it takes its relations with the Jewish state.
Observers of Indian foreign policy always stress that dramatic changes are not possible in foreign policy. In the Indian context, they may be right but that is is not universally true: Richard Nixon’s hand of friendship towards China fundamentally altered international geopolitics from 1968 to 1972. Back home in India, the Modi government has not shown such boldness in its policies – maybe with good reason. However, there is no reason such changes cannot be made especially when the new policy makes little material demands.
None of this is to say that symbolism does not matter in the public space – it does. However, it is important to distinguish between show and substance and the Indian prime minister’s visit is not too central to Indo-Israeli relations. Indeed, the visit is a historic one in that it is a the first time an Indian prime minister has visited Israel but there are many firsts that the world has found uninteresting or forgotten and moved on – such as where the world’s first parking meter was installed (Oklahoma City, 1935), or even who took the first space walk (Alexei Leonov, 1965). While Modi’s visit is unarguably historic, the real question is if it will be equally substantive.