Modi diplomacy: Israel can finally talk about defence interests with India

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Updated: January 16, 2016 8:10 am
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About three years ago, when an Israeli ambassador to India was asked about the India-Israel defence relationship – he had shied away from giving a direct answer. The Congress-led UPA government was in power and New Delhi and Tel Aviv used to take great pains at avoiding the discussion on the most-obvious element of the relationship: defence.

So, this week, when Israeli Ambassador Daniel Carmon addressed the media and declared openly: “The defence cooperation for many years has been central pillars of the relationship. The changing world, changing parameters, changing needs are always something that is on the top of our agenda and always on our radar,” it came as a surprise. He also referred to the tests of the Barak 8 missile, both in India and Israel, as shining examples of joint ventures in the defence sphere.

That is the change in the relationship, as External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj heads to Israel and Palestine on January 17 and 18.

The two sides have now come out into the open about their mutual strategic interests, and not just talk about the issues of agriculture, water and renewable energy.

Officials say the change in the relationship has come after the Narendra Modi government came to power.

The first signs were when the Prime Minister met his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA in September 2014 — the first such meeting in a decade. In February 2015, Moshe Ya’alon, the first Israeli Defence Minister to visit India, spoke openly of bilateral defence cooperation.

However, the Indian government – even under the BJP-led NDA regime – is aware of the complexity of the relationship with Palestine, as there are domestic political sensitivities involved.

Thus, a year after his meeting with Netanyahu, Modi met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in September 2015 in New York. And in all public pronouncements, Swaraj and South Block officials have maintained India’s position of support to the Palestinian cause.

This was reiterated not only during President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Palestine and Israel in October 2015, but also in the statements that India has made at the UN over the past year and a half. Part of the diplomatic balancing is in the optics — after landing at Ben-Gurion airport, Mukherjee headed first to Palestine, before returning to Israel.

While the balancing of the relationship will be an integral part of the relationship, indications are that Swaraj’s visit will be the precursor to an exchange of visits at the highest level between India and the region. Modi will become the first Indian PM to visit Israel and Palestine, and top Israeli and Palestinian leaders are likely to visit India this year.