Friday’s UNHRC vote was the first instance of an Indian abstention on a resolution condemning Israel. This cannot but be read as a “nuancing of India’s position”. Yet, the MEA has cited the fact that New Delhi is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of 1998, which established the International Criminal Court. Therefore, the vote doesn’t change India’s support for the Palestinians. It is another matter that the Geneva Resolution ignored rockets launched by Hamas and the UNHRC report’s criticism of the Palestinians. At the heart of the abstention, however, is the argument that India’s relationship with Israel should be read on its own terms, and its significance will be debated against the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announced visit to Israel.
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An important meeting took place between Modi and Binyamin Netanyahu on the UNGA sidelines last September — the first time that Indian and Israeli PMs met in 11 years. Netanyahu invited Modi to visit Israel at the earliest. Modi waited for Netanyahu to form his new government before announcing his visit. That it was confirmed without any “official” prospective dates underscores the political significance of the messaging around the first trip to Israel by an Indian PM. The timing of the announcement suggested a personal rapport between the leaders.
The only time an Indian or Israeli head of government has set foot in the other country was when Ariel Sharon visited in 2003. That visit lifted the understated, albeit robust, bilateral ties to a strategic partnership. Second, partly as a result of that visit, the India-US distance began shrinking — this was when India was still smarting from the post-9/11 slight. Sharon had played a personal role in projecting India above where it dared to see itself. More than a decade later, New Delhi has declared to the world what Sharon’s visit had sought to proclaim: that India has no reason to be shy of its ties to Israel.
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When we talk about the Indo-Israeli relationship coming out of the closet, we tend to ignore the fact that nobody ever harboured strong illusions about what went on behind the scenes. It was our worst-kept secret. India had recognised Israel in 1950. As coterminous democracies that gained independence in 1947 and 1948, the trajectory of their bilateral ties needn’t have been subterranean. The establishment of formal diplomatic ties in 1992 was the first attempt at claiming the future, if not reclaiming the past. It was in 2003 that the relationship almost came out in the open, before being firmly put back in the closet. That was unfortunate, since there had appeared to be a bipartisan consensus, as far as the Congress and the BJP were concerned, on Israel. However, over the decade-long UPA rule, the Congress reverted to its old ideological posturing of the 1970s, when India pretended to be “more Arab than Arab states”. It was a return to a past left behind by events. It also precluded a timely understanding in Delhi of the Arab uprisings.
The announcement of Modi’s visit takes ownership of the course correction. Despite the Congress’s political refusal to acknowledge India’s intimate relationship with Israel, bilateral ties had picked up a momentum of their own that belied New Delhi’s rhetoric of “equidistance” from Israelis and Palestinians. More accurately, the relationship had grown independent of India’s traditional support for a Palestinian state and its interests in Gulf Arab states.
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When Netanyahu told Modi in New York that “the sky is the limit”, he was not exaggerating. No Indian PM has known this better than Modi, who had visited Israel as Chief Minister of Gujarat, and actively sought Israeli knowhow and investment — in ports, desalination plants, agriculture, alternative energy, pharmaceutical and cyber firms. Israel’s prowess in agriculture and its expertise in water treatment are unparalleled. The fruits of this collaboration, using adaptable technologies, are visible in crop yields and quality enhancement. Collaboration is set to expand on cyber security, whereby Indian corporates — particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks that caused them a loss of $ 4 billion in 2013 — will benefit from Israeli solutions and understanding of the interface between technology and crime/terror. Israel’s newly established National Cyber Security Authority aims to build links between the civilian and military authorities of the two countries. Netanyahu’s invitation to Modi to partner in this project kept in mind India’s need to speedily build cyber defence mechanisms. This also ties in with enhanced collaboration on counterterrorism and homeland security, including land and maritime border surveillance.
The Modi government’s first statement of intent concerned defence cooperation, traditionally kept under wraps. It announced the procurement of the Barak-1 missile, followed by the decision to buy Spike ATGMs and launchers. But Israel’s status as India’s second-largest defence supplier and India’s as its largest customer also circumvent unresolved problems with the US on tech transfer. Ironically, US strictures on arms sales to China have given New Delhi an edge over Beijing, as Israeli technology has upgraded its cruise missiles and old fighters. Under “Make in India”, Israel may prove an ideal partner for tech transfer, and Netanyahu has expressed his eagerness to explore the prospects of Israeli defence firms making in India and reducing manufacturing costs. But Modi and Netanyahu must get the FTA — in the works for years — out of the way, with its potential to double or even treble the bilateral trade of approximately $ 5 billion.
By announcing that its PM will visit Israel, India has filled a lacuna. For the record, Arab states rediscovered their respect for India only when India established formal ties with Israel. The Middle East long ceased to be defined by the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are new faultlines and raging conflicts. The partnership is about surviving the coming storms.