Modi’s Israel visit: Embracing the Middle East?

 Modi, Rivlin, Israel, Middle East
Source: Wikimedia

With his much-awaited trip to Tel Aviv in July, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is preparing to break a long-standing diplomatic impasse—no Indian prime minister has visited Israel since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992. But this anomaly is now set to be corrected.

This year, India and Israel will celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations, making the visit by the Indian prime minister momentous in more senses than one. While Modi would correct a contemporarily historic wrong of India overtly ignoring Tel Aviv, India-Israel relations have subliminally flourished despite diplomatic distance maintained by New Delhi at the highest level. The reasoning behind India’s muted public stance on Israel was threefold: firstly, the obsolete Nehruvian thinking of non-alignment continued to captivate how India approached the Middle East. Secondly, New Delhi’s long-held political and morally-hyphenated stance on the issue of Palestine put it at odds with Israel. And finally, the Indian strategy to put pressure on Pakistan via its Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia kept the idea of strengthening relations with Israel at bay.

In contrast, Israel did not shy away from India. In fact, former prime minister David Ben-Gurion flagged the rise of Asia amidst waning Western hegemony as early as 1953, in an essay titled “Israel Among The Nations”. Tel Aviv, over time, has perhaps understood India’s compulsions and balancing acts in the region due to domestic political optics. Prime Minister Arial Sharon made the first prime ministerial visit to New Delhi in 2003, and since then, many high-level visits have taken place from both sides. Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visited the country in 2015 and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin reciprocated with a week-long tour of India last year.

Historically, Israel has been much more forthcoming about its intentions for deeper ties with India. That both nations established diplomatic ties right after India liberalised its economy was perfect timing. Defense quickly became a pivotal point of cooperation, the seeds of which Tel Aviv had sown in the 1960s. For example, during the 1971 India-Pakistan war, when New Delhi found itself on the fringes of global exclusion, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Golda Meir, as per researcher Gary Bass, stepped in by secretly providing weapons to India’s strained arsenal. Bass termed Israel’s unexpected support as a “surprising minor success” for India.

Today, defense cooperation is the most significant aspect of India-Israel relations. India is Israel’s largest market for weapons and Israel is now the third-largest arms provider to India, after Russia and the United States. Furthermore, Tel Aviv has shown more inclination in joint developmental partnerships with New Delhi in the defense field, with more liberal regulations than almost any other country. Modi’s visit is bound to give a further boost to the Indo-Israel defense partnership, a field where both countries, which suffer from cross-border terrorism, can truly develop a by-definition strategic relationship.

However, beyond defense, any escalation in India-Israel relations will have regional and global implications. Like India, but at a much larger scale, China is becoming a major economic presence in the Middle East. Due to an economy three times the size of India coupled with increasing political heft that Beijing is not shy to use, China may force India to maneuver away from the safety of its diplomatic ambiguity in the region and take more visible and clear stands on issues, parties, and states. In Indian discourse, the political cost of such a change in approach is grossly over-played, which has largely been responsible for the delay in such visits.

It is interesting to note here that both India and China established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992. The reason for this delay was perhaps the same for both countries: being wary of upsetting Arab partners by establishing direct relations with Tel Aviv. Nonetheless, both India and China took advantage of the U.S.-orchestrated Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, where Arab states and Israel sat face-to-face for talks in order to launch official ties. The contemporary political and economic rivalry between New Delhi and Beijing, previously witnessed in other geopolitical theaters such as Africa, will affect how all the major players in the Middle East approach the Asian theater. With Riyadh teaming up with Tokyo to launch schemes such as a $100 billion technology fund, something that would immensely interest India, others such as Israel will also have to look much beyond the ambit of defense agreements to build a long-term strategic cooperation with New Delhi. India’s attempts to match China diplomatically and economically is an opportunity for Israel’s industries, with their liberal outlook on issues such as technology transfer and joint-development, to develop an edge over not just regional but global competitors as well.

Modi’s Israel visit should aim to bring India closer to the Middle East and should project India as a politically-relevant power backed by one of the largest market economies in the world. Israel is in competition with its neighbors that have all started to look East to invest as they try and move away from their traditional petrodollar economies. Economics should prevail in India’s Middle East policies, and political rebalance will automatically follow from the Middle East itself.

This commentary originally appeared in South Asian Voices.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Kabir Taneja

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