India telegraphs its intentions with state visit to Israel

Harsh V Pant looks at the state of India's relations with the Middle East days before the Indian president visits Israel

In a historic first, Indian president Pranab Mukherjee has travelled to Israel and Palestine for the first ever visit to these territories by an Indian head of state. Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg
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In a historic first, Indian president Pranab Mukherjee has travelled to Israel and Palestine for the first ever visit to these territories by an Indian head of state. Despite India sharing 23 years of diplomatic ties with Israel and working closely on defence, counter- terrorism, agriculture and energy related issues, no Indian prime minister or president has ever previously visited it.

Later this year, Narendra Modi is also likely to become the first prime minister of India to visit Israel. Mr Modi had visited Israel as the chief minister of Gujarat in 2006. And as Indian prime minister, he met Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last year.

A hallmark of Mr Modi’s foreign policy has been a self-confident assertion of Indian interests. This is reflected in his government’s moves in relation to Israel, marking a distinct break from the diffidence of the past.

There has been a steady strengthening of India’s relationship with Israel ever since the two established full diplomatic relations in 1992.

In contrast to the back-channel security ties that existed before the normalisation of bilateral relations, India has been more willing to carve out a mutually beneficial relationship with Israel, including strengthening military ties and countering the threat terrorism poses to the two societies.

Over the years, the Indian government has also toned down its reactions to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

India has also begun denouncing violent acts in Israel, something that was seen earlier as rather justified in light of the Israeli policies against Palestinians. India is no longer initiating anti-Israel resolutions at the UN. This re-evaluation has been based on the belief that India’s largely pro-Arab stance in the Middle East has not been always adequately rewarded.

India has received little backing over the issue of Kashmir. Generally, the Arab world has stood by Pakistan, using the Organisation of Islamic Conference to build support for Islamabad in Kashmir. If some Arab countries, such as Jordan, have been able to keep their traditional ties with the Palestinians intact while building a new relationship with Israel, there is no reason for India not to take a similar route is the argument that holds sway in New Delhi.

Keeping India’s wider strategic interests in perspective, successive Indian governments since the early 1990s have walked a line between expressing genuine concern for the Palestinian cause and expanding its commercial and defence ties with Israel. India is the world’s largest buyer of Israeli weaponry and was Israel’s third largest trading partner in Asia in 2013 after China and Hong Kong.

On several occasions, Israel was willing to step up its arms sales to India after other major states curbed their technological exports following India’s May 1998 nuclear tests. When India was planning to undertake a limited military strike against Pakistan in June 2002 as part of Operation Parakram, Israel supplied hardware through special planes. Previous Indian governments had been reticent in acknowledging Israel’s partnership.

In diplomacy, public affirmation of friendships at the highest levels is often as important as drawing redlines for adversaries. After a major outreach to the UAE, the Modi government is also taking a step forward in its ties with Tel Aviv in the belief that an open relationship with Israel serves India well.

Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King’s College London