Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much publicised Israel visit in 2016 was reciprocated by his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu with a six-day visit recently. Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, though he had visited the country earlier in 2006 as Chief Minister of Gujarat. The visit of Netanyahu marks 25 years since India and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1992 when PV Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister.
In spite of India, along with 128 other countries, voting in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution rejecting US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and cancelling the $500m defence deal with Rafael to purchase Spike anti-tank guided missiles just two weeks before Netanyahu was set to visit India, a shift in diplomatic policy towards Israel was clearly visible. Netanyahu’s charkha diplomacy at Sabarmati confirmed India’s bonhomie with Israel.
Signs of Shift
The first official signs of a shift in Israel policy came when India had abstained from the UNHRC vote against Israel in 2015. Modi reiterated India’s support to the Palestinian cause during Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ last year’s visit to India, stating that “there should be a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel” but significantly omitting “with East Jerusalem as its capital” – a phrase, which always followed any Indian statement on the Palestinian issue in the past .
India voted against partitioning of Palestine in 1947 and against Israel’s admission to the United Nations in 1949. India officially recognised Israel as a State only in 1950. Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister, openly admitted that India had refrained from recognising Israel because of its desire not to offend the sentiments of Arab countries. India’s domestic need for fossil fuel, most of which comes from Arab countries and they being a good job market for Indian natives, which helps India maintain its foreign exchange reserves, are among the reasons for India’s reserved diplomatic ties with the Jewish State.
Linked to Religion
India’s traditional international policy does not support the policy of formation of nation on the basis of religion. With BJP’s ascent to power at the Centre, India’s diplomatic orientation has been tacitly linked to religion. The present Citizenship Amendment Bill proposes to grant citizenship to ‘minority-religious individuals’ – specifically Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians – from ‘Muslim-dominated countries’ – specifically Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
One of the reasons for India’s hesitation to establish a full-fledged diplomatic relation with Israel was because Indian politicians, particularly from the Congress that was in power at the Centre, feared losing Muslim votes. Since the BJP relies more on polarisation of votes on religious lines to garner Hindu votes in blocks, the party has no fear of losing Muslim votes.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin candidly stated that Modi has changed the strategy of India when it comes to the relationship with Israel. Internationally too, the contours of hostility between Israel and the Arab countries has changed with Saudi Arabia coming closer to Israel apparently out of fear of their common enemy – Shiite Iran.
The population of Israel is just 6.5 million, 20 times less than that of India. Israel is a country of 20,770 square km — 158 times smaller than India. Moreover, only 14% of the total land of Israel is arable, the rest is desert. This does not deter the Jewish country to become one of the largest and variety agricultural producer in the world.
Israel supplies military equipment worth $1 billion to India annually. It is a world leader in cut diamonds and deals in millions with thousands of diamond dealers in India, mainly from Gujarat. Israel sources most of its diamond polishing and cutting business from India due to low labour cost and skilled craftsmanship.
The military cooperation between India and Israel increased after the Kargil War in 1999. Israel provided latest weapons, satellite imagery and intelligence for infiltrator surveillance defying US pressure not to engage with India in defence matters. It is to be noted that the BJP was in power during the Kargil War.
India is the second largest military equipment exporter to Israel. The current annual bilateral trade between the two countries is valued at around $4.5 billion while trade between Israel and China was worth $11.35 billion in 2016. The bilateral trade between China and Israel came down heavily after the US imposition of an embargo on the transfer of sensitive technology to China. Israel found India a suitable market for its defence products.
It is undeniable that apart from sophisticated warfare equipment, Israel has developed advanced technology in drip and micro-irrigation and water desalination among others. Cooperation with Israel in these fields will particularly help India in increasing agricultural and horticultural productivity.
Tourism is another potential area from which both the countries can benefit. One of the favourite Israeli tourist destinations is India. At present, 40,000 Israeli tourists visit India every year. On the other hand, 60,000 Indian tourists visited Israel last year, according to Israeli tourism director Hassan Madah.
However, the shift in India’s Israel policy owes mainly on BJP’s religious outlook than economic interests. India’s vote against Israel in the UN was strategic, which wanted to give an impression that an anti-Islamic ideology is not the basis of the India-Israeli bonhomie.
Moreover, India did not want to be isolated by being clubbed with smaller countries — only nine voted against the resolution and 35 countries abstained.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)