Originally Published 2015-06-15 00:00:00 Published on Jun 15, 2015
Israel being India's most trusted ally in West Asia and among the three or four closest friends in the world, Prime Minister Modi's visit to Israel needs to be a standalone, a single country trip. The India-Israel relationship is important enough, even sacred enough, to merit that respect.
Don't hyphenate Israel

Ever since Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj announced at a press conference that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would visit Israel in the near future, there has been much speculation about the event. It is unclear when the trip will take place as Mr Modi has a packed calendar, right up to a proposed October-November visit to the United Kingdom. It is entirely possible that the Israel visit could be pushed to early next year.

The dates are less relevant than the fear mongering. It is no secret that Israel (and Mr Modi) evoke great suspicion in some quarters of Delhi's strategic community. There have been the usual complaints that such a visit is unnecessary and will only hassle the Muslim world. Others have openly urged a multi-country itinerary to balance and over-compensate for the Israel component with stops in not just the Palestinian territories, but also Jordan, Egypt, the list keeps growing.

It goes without saying that Mr Modi must visit the Arab world and the broader Middle East - or West Asia and North Africa, as the ministry of external affairs labels it. He has run an energetic foreign policy and gone to regions that had been ignored by several predecessor Prime Ministers. He has covered India's immediate neighbourhood. He has travelled to Australia and Fiji, where he addressed a conclave of leaders from the Pacific Islands. He has touched down in Seychelles and Mauritius as part of an Indian Ocean outreach. He combined his China tour with a stopover in Mongolia. Shortly, he will travel to a gamut of Central Asian states - the "stans" as they are called - and renew an old Indian relationship that has lost its way in recent decades.

Of the geographies of deep relevance to India, Africa and the Middle East/the Muslim heartland have not seen substantial engagement yet. In the months to follow, Mr Modi needs to bridge this gap. There are ample challenges here - especially for an India that is so dependent on Gulf oil and remittances from expatriate workers - but there are opportunities as well. India is a growing economy and its infrastructure projects offer the hope of steady, long-term returns. This has got sovereign funds in the Gulf region, from Qatar to the United Arab Emirates, very interested.

India is also a non-Western democracy: a traditional society and yet a contemporary state and polity, one that combines deeply-felt religious identities and reservoirs of social conservativeness with an open and competitive political system, and an equality of citizens and participating communities. As a template it makes more sense to Gulf/Arab societies that are in the initial stages of undertaking their own project of a wrenching moderation and modernisation.

The threat of being overwhelmed by forces such as those of the Islamic State has thrown established Muslim countries and regimes into turmoil. In a sense, jihadism is not so much an "Islam versus the rest" conflict, but is gradually devolving into a civil war within the Muslim world itself. This is made much more complex by the Shia-Sunni tussle in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and inside and/or between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Arab countries have responded to this in different ways. The more progressive states, such as Jordan, are hoping the ruling system will be popular enough to survive. Egypt saw an uprising led by the Islamic Brotherhood and then a second uprising against the Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia is seeding a meritocracy into the royal family, and ending the system of geriatric brothers automatically following each other as kings. In Dubai, showpiece city of the UAE, there is a proposal to end the mandatory clause that requires a foreign investor to have a local, Emirati, business partner who gets a share of the profit for doing nothing.

This is a massive leap for Dubai, but essential if it is to become a truly global business centre. Complementarily there is an attempt at loosening social mores. The Dubai authorities have approached the Indian government and urged it to mobilise the local community to build the city's first full-fledged Hindu temple. These are small steps. They may lead to something defining or they may lead to nothing at all. What they do require, however, is an imaginative Indian intervention, one that is not limited to being a defensive recipient of crude oil and petrodollars and an endless supplier of labour. Mr Modi has no choice but to enter this new Great Game in the Middle East.

Yet, while all of this is important, for India and for Mr Modi Israel stands as a class apart. A meaningful political relationship and intelligence cooperation, with say, Saudi Arabia is a desirable experiment; with Israel it is a settled fact. Over the past two decades, Israel has become embedded in the Indian system as an economic and strategic partner. From dairy farming to drip irrigation to horticulture, it is involved in a series of developmental projects across Indian states.

Israel is India's most trusted ally in West Asia and one dare say among the three or four closest friends India has anywhere in the world. It is not merely a key defence equipment supplier, but is willing to make serious investments in manufacture of military hardware in India, a prospect that has the potential to revolutionise India's economy. As such, it would be clumsy and discourteous to link a Modi visit to Israel to one to Muslim/Arab countries as well. Both need to be done, but both need to done as independent initiatives. There is little to be gained by hyphenating an Indian Prime Minister's first trip to Israel.

Therefore, irrespective of when Mr Modi goes to the Arab world, his visit to Israel needs to be a standalone - a single-country trip. The India-Israel relationship is important enough, even sacred enough, to merit that respect.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: The Asian Age, June 13, 2015

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.