Civilisational camaraderie with Israel on Modi’s mind; everything else is peripheral

 Netanyahu, Modi, Modi Era, Modi at three, IndiaIsrael, Ashok Malik

Israeli PM Netanyahu with PM Modi

Narendra Modi is the first Indian prime minister born after Independence in 1947. Benjamin Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister born in the Jewish nation after it was founded in 1948. It is appropriate then that their generation is writing a new chapter in the bilateral relationship and overcoming – if one were borrow Modi’s words from another context – the “hesitations of history”.

The key achievement of Modi’s visit to Israel is the visit itself. Everything else is peripheral. The defence and intelligence bond is strong. Israel is embedded in several developmental programmes – ranging from drip irrigation to growing olives, dairy farming to desalination and water management – in a variety of states, headed by governments under different parties.

Israeli tourists, particularly young Israelis immediately after they have done their compulsory military stint and are taking a short break before going to college or embarking on a civilian career, see India as a popular holiday and backpacking destination. Some 50,000 Indians are expected to visit Israel this year, and the outbound tourism numbers are growing impressively.

Such a wide and deep relationship was not predicted when India and Israel established full-fledged embassies in 1992. Yet, this engagement has been one of the miracles of the post-Cold War age. It has proved agnostic to political change in India. With the exception of one or two chief ministers – who must remain nameless – no senior Indian political functionary has refused an Israeli official or delegation a meeting.

The BJP has been open in talking up the relationship. Its government hosted Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, on a historic visit in 2003. A return visit was on the cards and would have taken place quickly if Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been re-elected in 2004. The Congress-led government that followed instead was wary of showcasing the Israel relationship, even though military and economic cooperation flourished. The Israelis persevered but were hurt by the absence of top-level and public commitment from the Indian side.

The Congress was unsure of how an Israel visit would play out in domestic politics, particularly among Muslim communities. The UPA government was also decorated with a few Kerala politicians for whom foreign policy didn’t extend beyond Malayalee diaspora affairs in the Gulf. As such, Manmohan Singh was never allowed to undertake that visit to Israel or announce the friendship proudly. That task has fallen on Modi.

The fallacy of the Gulf/Arab and domestic Muslim veto on engagement with Israel has also been exposed. The BJP government’s Think West approach has partnered a number of Arab countries in a very meaningful manner. None of this has been even remotely jeopardised by the Israel trip. Indeed, among sensible Arab countries there is more cooperation with Israel than is realised, particularly in intelligence sharing.

Some of it is becoming transparent. For example, there is an Israeli ambassador in Abu Dhabi, accredited to the International Renewable Energy Agency, an institution created under the auspices of the United Nations and headquartered in the emirate. Gulf countries see merit too in India’s proximity to Israel and are beginning to use the potentiality of those ties.

A few weeks ago, the ambassador of a leading Arab country met this writer. He spoke about cooperation between India and his country. “We are keen to work with India on irrigation and water issues. You are learning a lot from the Israelis, and we can work with them indirectly through you.” In the summer of 2015, India hosted an unusual Saudi Arabia-Israel track II meeting in Lucknow, with very high-level participation.

All of what has been described above could have continued unabated. None of it is dependent on a prime ministerial visit for advance. It is not as if Modi and Netanyahu will sign any earth-shattering documents and agreements without which the relationship will be seriously jeopardised. In any case, no military deals are going to be finalised; this is not the occasion.

The focus of the trip is on a civilisational camaraderie – going back to the time when the Jews at Masada, preparing for suicide rather than surrender to the invading Romans, took inspiration from the Hindu belief in the imperishable nature of the soul. It will be on agriculture and water management, on innovation as a contributor to the digital economy and to India’s modernisation. Much, much more than that it will be on an Indian friend visiting the Promised Land, as a pilgrim, an admirer, a history buff, and an equal and steadfast partner.

This commentary originally appeared in News18.com.

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Ashok Malik

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