Historic! This has become the most frequently used expression to describe the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in early July to Israel. There are many reasons why this is true. This is the first time an Indian prime minister is visiting Israel since the Jewish state came into being in May 1948 – a state India voted against when the matter came before the UN. On more than one occasion Mahatma Gandhi had wanted to visit the then mandate Palestine in the 1930s. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came close when he went to the Gaza Strip in 1960, when it was under Egyptian military control. While in May 1965 Vice-President Zakir Hussein prayed at the al-Aqsa mosque when East Jerusalem was under Jordanian control.
Modi’s visit also marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of full diplomatic relations by former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao, after the end of the Cold War, in 1992. Since, three ministers of External Affairs — Jaswant Singh, S M Krishna and Sushma Swaraj — and two Home ministers, L K Advani and Rajnath Singh, have travelled to Israel. From Israel, two presidents — Ezer Weizman and Reuven Rivlin – have come to India; the 2003 visit by prime minister Ariel Sharon was the icing on the cake.
More history? Exactly a century ago, British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour announced support for carving a Jewish state out of Palestine.
But the question that remains is, why has it taken so long for Modi to visit Israel? As the Lok Sabha results poured in in 2014, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first foreign leader to congratulate Modi. When the BJP-led government celebrated its first year, Sushma Swaraj declared the PM would visit soon – but it was President Pranab Mukherjee who grabbed that honour. The President visited Israel (also Jordan and Palestine) later that year before Swaraj’s January 2016 visit. But there were still no signs of a Modi visit – until now.
Why Is Modi’s visit important ?
Since relations were fully established in 1992, Israel has been a major player in India’s military-security calculations. It has emerged as a major supplier of weapons and seen as a potential partner in joint defense research and development. The bilateral security cooperation goes beyond arms trade and encompasses areas such as counter-terrorism, cyber security, homeland security, border management and intelligence sharing. If India were to entice Israel to be part of its Make in India campaign, especially in the military arena, a political visit becomes inevitable.
At the same time, there remains substantial ambivalence within the country towards Israel, which means Modi has to get his timing right. That is why the PM has actively engaged with the Middle East, beginning with his visit to the UAE in August 2015 and following on with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar the following year. A G-20 meeting took him to Turkey in November 2014 and he hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi twice. He has met Saudi and Emirati leaders often. Only last month, he hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – it was Abbas’ fifth time in India since he was elected in 2005. By keeping Israel as a last major Middle East destination, Modi has neutralized many negative voices both within the country and in the region.
The fact the PM will not visit the Palestine territories – especially Ramallah, which is only a few kms away from the Israeli Knesset – is a major departure for India’s foreign policy. Essentially this indicates that India is ready to break from the past and de-hyphenate its relationship with Palestine from Israel. The Ministry of External Affairs has been advocating this strategy for some time, but New Delhi’s hesitation has cut across party lines. Balancing Israel and Palestine had become the hallmark of India’s diplomatic dance since relations were normalised in 1992.
It is in this context one should read the important Indian shift vis-à-vis Israel. During Abbas’ recent visit, Modi announced India’s support to the Palestinian cause and said that there should be “a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel.” In the previous decade, the Indian statement was always caveated with the phrase, “with East Jerusalem as the capital”, but Modi chose to omit it altogether.
Certainly, a new approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict is in the offing. India now expects Palestine to take the initiative in resolving its problem with Israel, rather than depend upon the international community to put pressure on it. Modi’s visit will not only impact India’s diplomatic engagements in the wider Middle East, he will be seen by the wider Middle East as someone who is determined to carve out his own policy around a historical struggle.
Why is the Modi visit important for Israel?
There are expectations that both sides will announce a number of defence deals and joint collaborations during Modi’s visit but the larger importance is the visit itself. Over the years, due to political differences pertaining to the Middle East peace process a number of western countries have moved away from Israel and become its harshest critics. Political visits have become less frequent and when they happen, somewhat unpleasant. The US-Israel relationship was under enormous stress during the Obama administration and on issues like Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and the Iranian nuclear deal, there were angry exchanges in public.
Certainly, the Indian prime minister will be made very welcome. By not visiting Ramallah, Modi will be seen as brave enough to come out of the closet and be prepared to deal with Israel. Some believe that, henceforth, Palestine’s importance and influence in India and other parts of the Third World will be drastically reduced. Perhaps that will also push Mahmoud Abbas to be more flexible in his negotiations with the Israelis.