The subject of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s possible response to an invitation by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and president Reuven Rivlin to visit their country has set tongues wagging both domestically and internationally. Arab News, a Saudi broadsheet owned by one of King Salman’s sons, warned that the Indian prime minister was making a risky gamble on relations with Israel while domestic tabloids indicated bureaucratic unease with the strengthening of relations between India and Israel, at least at this juncture. This is quite a strong reaction to a potential state visit to a country that has so far only existed on the periphery of Indian political thinking. No matter, the Indian prime minister must go to Israel and not fall prey to this tactic of unmaking government decisions before they are made.
Israel occupies an odd place in Indian thinking. Despite the extension of recognition by the Indian government to the Jewish state in 1950, formal diplomatic ties were not established until 1992. Jawaharlal Nehru blocked Israel’s entry into the Non-Aligned Movement and turned the organisation into an unequivocally pro-Arab forum. India refused to accept Israeli assistance in improving agriculture in its semi-arid regions and in the mid-1960s, refused to even accept famine relief sent by Israel in response to a plea by the UN Secretary General, U Thant – lest it hurt relations with Arab nations! In the United Nations, Delhi was persuaded by its own rhetoric of third world solidarity and established a long record of voting against Israel. Indira Gandhi went so far as to vote in favour of UN Resolution 3379 in 1975, which equated Zionism with racism. Interestingly, none of this was without domestic opposition, political as well as in the media, but it was they heyday of Congress hegemony. Support for Palestine even merited a privileged mention in the manifesto of the Indian National Congress for the general elections of 2014.
Despite an avowedly pro-Arab stance, India initiated clandestine relations with Israel in the late 1960s. This has been documented as much as is publicly possible in B. Raman’s The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane as well as Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman’s Every Spy a Prince and most recently Srinath Raghavan’s 1971 – A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. Indian intelligence received training from Mossad and assistance in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. According to Harsh Pant, professor at King’s College, London, India received tacit support even earlier, during the Chinese invasion in 1962 and the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965. Since, Israeli assistance has continued clandestinely despite official diplomatic insults. Its intelligence agency was quite capable of serving as an alternative diplomatic service, providing military and other assistance to countries who would prefer their ties to Israel not be known. More recently, it has been acknowledged in academic and military circles alike that Israel’s role in the Kargil War in 1999 was timely and critical for the Indian war effort.
India’s rabidly anti-Israel position was diluted significantly after it established official diplomatic relations with the Middle Eastern democracy in 1992 – the last non-Arab, non-Muslim country to do so. There have been several high-level visits from both sides though support for Israel is deeply partisan in India. Though ties between the two countries were normalised under PV Narasimha Rao, the first foreign minister to visit Israel was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Jaswant Singh and it was Atal Behari Vajpayee who first invited then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to India in 2003. No Indian prime minister has ever visited Israel, though Modi has been to the country when he was the chief minister of Gujarat in 2006. Pace the Indian ruling class, the Jewish people and Israel have always been viewed warmly by Indians at large. In a 2009 survey done by Israel’s Ministry of External Affairs, it was found that the popularity of the Middle Eastern country was the the highest among the Indians. Interestingly, a 2014 survey by the BBC showed the majority of Israelis neutrally disposed towards India and only a small section of Israeli society as positive about the South Asian giant, presumably because of Delhi’s policies in the past. As the Jewish genealogical journal Avotaynu observed of India a few years ago, “Bene Israel flourished for 2,400 years in a tolerant land that has never known anti-Semitism, and were successful in all aspects of the socio-economic and cultural life of the people of the region.”
Modi’s rise to power has raised hopes in Jerusalem. Having dealt with Modi during his tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat, Israelis have developed a fondness for a man whom they see as very Israeli in many ways. Very tachles is how one editorial described him, a Hebrew slang word that means the ability to talk about the bottom line, the concrete, the tangible…basically, getting down to business. Israeli businessmen invested billions in infrastructure, energy, pharmaceuticals, water treatment, agriculture, desalination, and semiconductors in Gujarat during Modi’s tenure, finding the environment in the state to be business friendly and less bureaucratic than the rest of India. If Modi carries even a fraction of the same enthusiasm for ties on to the national level, it would mean an unprecedented boom for the Israeli economy. Non-military trade between India and Israel has risen from the paltry $100 million in 1992 to slightly over $5 billion in 2015 but this could double if a free trade agreement that has been in the works is concluded while creating much employment through the Make in India campaign simultaneously.
Beyond the obvious economic drivers to closer relations with Israel, there is, of course, the strategic imperative. Although Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee’s National Security Advisor, nearly caused an aneurysm in some circles when he openly called for a strategic India-Israel-United States alliance in 2003, the fact remains that both India and Israel suffer from the same Islamist plague, whether it comes in the form of Hamas or the Laskhar-e-Taiba. Cooperation in counter-terrorism measures and intelligence has only grown between the two nations as has the supply of defence equipment to India – Israel now stands third behind only Russia and the United States in supplying the Indian military. Despite its size, population, and political turmoil, Israel is a high-tech island in the Middle East that has much to offer a technology-hungry India that is looking to leap past a couple of stages of development.
An unpleasant truth, perhaps, but there is, of course, another reason that Modi is popular among many of Israel’s lawmakers. His profile as firm and outspoken opponent of Islamic extremism, a common enemy, particularly in the wake of the Bombay attacks of November 2008 that targeted the Jewish community, among others, makes him more appealing than other Indian leaders. Then, the Indian representative to the United Nations had condemned the attack in his speech and while naming the several locations in Bombay the terrorists had attacked, left out the Jewish synagogue in Colaba, Chabad House.
Despite the obvious synergies between the two countries, any talk of closer ties is usually dampened by a heavy shroud of caution and pessimism. Israel’s relationship with China and India’s connections to Iran are frequently seen as obstacles to close ties between Delhi and Jerusalem. This interpretation does great dishonour to Israeli tachles: Jerusalem has made it clear that its relations with Beijing are purely commercial while it views ties to Delhi as strategic as well as economic. Israel has not made particular efforts to augment its arms sales to China in recent years, in large part because its primary ally and investor, the United States, imposes strict restrictions on the sale of weapons and technology to the rising superpower. With India, however, these restrictions have substantially weakened and Israeli firms frequently push for maximum cooperation on technology as well as weapons platforms with India, wiling to discuss not just sales but even manufacturing under license and co-development.
On Iran, cooler heads in Jerusalem accept that commercial ties with Iran are crucial for India not just for the obvious hydrocarbon trade but also as access points via Chabahar into Afghanistan and Central Asia. Greater Indian influence in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Iran may even work to Israel’s advantage eventually, securing one middleman in the region who is not the Great Satan. With the second largest Muslim population in the world, India’s bonafides are beyond suspicion. To revive an old worldview of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, India is the new periphery state for Israel, at least in the East. Unlike during the Cold War, this new periphery cannot survive on hard power alone. Delhi’s soft power in the region may be of great use if it can only be reinforced with some hard power.
Proponents of the status quo in Indian foreign policy towards the Middle East also bring up the potential fate of India’s large diaspora in the region. Of the almost 22 million Indians living overseas, about six million still reside in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar accounting for 5.2 million Indians between them. If an overtly pro-Israel policy is adopted by Delhi, it is feared that the Gulf countries might curtail the employment of Indians and even send some back. Not only does this create unemployment at home but it will also reduce the remittance flow into India; last year, India was the highest recipient of diaspora remittances with about $70 billion out of which almost $19 billion came from the Middle East. Furthermore, the Middle East is a premier destination for Indian exports and equally importantly, the source of some 60 per cent of India’s hydrocarbons.
However, it is unlikely that any move by the Modi government will see a drastic shift on the ground: it is unlikely that the Gulf states will expel thousands of Indians or refuse to sell oil to India on the basis of a single state visit. Indeed, their greatest benefactor, the United States, has been one of Jerusalem’s closest allies for decades. India can move significantly closer to Israel all the while espousing almost the same rhetoric as Modi’s predecessors used: India still wishes to see a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian question and supports a two-state solution. Since Delhi is not a major player in the Middle East, it will not be called on for more details, wherein the devil resides. Without such a clear break, there is ample wiggle room for India to play on the differences between the Gulf states themselves: Qatar and Saudi Arabia, for example, have had somewhat of a prickly relationship over the past decade or so, and Oman stood against its GCC comrades on a joint military command perceivably to counter Iran.
Yet what makes a Modi visit to Jerusalem unpalatable to Arab Street at this particular juncture is Netanyahu’s recent outbursts – regarding Palestine and the two-state solution as well as the allegedly racist observation that Israeli Arabs are bringing out the vote – in the heat of the recent closely contested Israeli general elections. That, in concert with his adamant opposition to the potential outcome of the ongoing negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme are said to be major landmines for an Indian diplomatic overture at this moment. As one diplomat explained, “That whole region is already on fire, and what Netanyahu is doing is to throw a tanker of oil into that fire.” However, it is an unbelievably naïve view of politics and human affairs in general to assume that one agrees with and supports every view of any interlocutor one happens to chance upon. By the same token, would dialogue with Pakistan be seen as an endorsement of terrorism against India? Modi goes to Israel strictly in pursuit of Indian interests; to read anything else into it is mischievous.
Allegations that a potential state visit by Modi might upset the delicate balance in the Middle East also puts too much import on the power of one summit. Additionally, it views – wrongly – the Israeli-Arab knot as a zero-sum game, for even outsiders. In 1992, when India sought to normalise relations with Israel, it sought approval from the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians told India, ”There are signed accords between us [and Israel] and we are now talking to the Israelis; your establishing relations with Israel helps us.” It is difficult to believe otherwise now.
Modi must indeed respond positively to Netanyahu’s invitation and visit Israel soon. The Middle East’s problems are not India’s to solve and to think it carries much weight in the region at present is comical. So far, Delhi has mistreated a potential ally in the region and tolerated humiliation by those whom it desperately wished to befriend. It is time Raisina Hill replaced this obsequiousness with a more balanced and pragmatic policy that works on a simple quid pro quo. If even this simple stance is to be feared as jeopardising relations with other states in the region, perhaps those relations were never worth having in the first place. After all, it is India’s interests Modi must pursue and not any other. If a prime minister cannot unabashedly pursue the interests of his nation, who else can?
This post appeared on FirstPost on April 20, 2015.