A“marriage made in heaven, we are implementing it here on earth”, is how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the India-Israel relationship. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-day visit rode high on the symbolism of two “like-minded” countries coming together to celebrate their relationship openly after a discreet 25 year-romance. After P.V. Narasimha Rao’s decision to establish formal diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, Modi’s visit underlined the reality that only a prime minister who enjoys his kind of electoral popularity, rooted in the new nationalism that runs through India, could have made such a touch-down at Tel Aviv, that too without including Palestine in the itinerary. It was left to the more business-like joint statement to reflect the continuity as well as the change in the long years of silent diplomatic give and take. The apparently last-minute inclusion in the declaration that the bilateral relationship has been elevated to a “strategic partnership” added heft to history.
Among the seven agreements signed during the visit are those that seek to leverage Israel’s expertise in water conservation and to expand the existing technological co-operation between the two countries in agriculture. New agreements have also been signed for collaboration between the space agencies of the two countries. There is to be a joint $40 million research and development fund. Unsurprisingly, the statement was not expansive on the ongoing defence co-operation between the two countries. Prime Minister Modi’s reference to the “complex geographies” of the two countries, on a day when China was staring down India on the Doklam plateau, was an acknowledgment of both the possibilities and limits of this relationship. The joint statement made no mention of cross-border terrorism or Pakistan, or the need to punish the perpetrators of the 26/11 attack — boilerplate text that India manages to push into most statements with its allies. The absence underlined Israel’s own troubled relationship with Iran over the Hezbollah, India’s cordial ties with the Islamic Republic, and the pragmatic decision by both sides to keep their other friendships and enmities out.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of this visit is the de-hyphenation of India’s relations with Israel and Palestine. This has been criticised as India abandoning the Palestinian cause, but evidence on the ground says otherwise. The joint statement called for a just and durable peace in the region, and made no mention of the two-state resolution. But as recently as March this year, India voted in favour of four resolutions critical of Israel, including one that recognised the Palestinian right to self-determination. In May, President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine was welcomed in Delhi, and Modi reaffirmed that “we hope to see the realisation of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine, co-existing peacefully with Israel”. In interviews to the Israeli press ahead of his visit, Modi was unequivocal about India’s support for a two-state solution. Some policies of the past, it seems, are set to survive the winds of change.