Under Modi’s watch, India edges closer to Israel

India's relations with Israel have been robust after Israel provided India with military assistance during the Kargil War against Pakistan in 1999, but Modi's new government looks set to further strengthen ties.

India's prime minister Narendra Modi took time out to meet the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2014. Kena Betancur/Getty Images/AFP
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NEW DELHI // In a delicate balancing act, the Indian government under prime minister Narendra Modi is showing signs of edging closer to Israel, even as it attempts to maintain its longtime support of Palestine and cordial relations with the Arab world.

Last week, Rajnath Singh, India’s home minister, travelled to Israel for two days to discuss defence and security issues – a visit that, analysts say, is in clear line with the thinking of Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

During a visit by the former Israeli president Shimon Peres to Delhi last week, Mr Modi’s office expressed “the strong desire of India to further expand and strengthen its relations with Israel both in traditional areas as well as in new areas of cooperation”.

Perhaps more pointedly, Mr Modi took time out to meet the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. Although Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestininian president, was in New York at the same time, Mr Modi did not fix a meeting with him.

This represents a break from the past, said Suhasini Haider, the diplomatic affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper. “While India won’t abandon Palestine, you will see a greater nuancing” in its stance on the Israel-Palestine issue, she said.

India has historically played a cautious hand when it came to the Middle East. It became the first non-Arab state to recognise Palestine in 1988. It extended diplomatic recognition to Israel only in 1992, but its military, agricultural and scientific ties with Israel have improved steadily since.

Relations have been robust since Israel provided India with military assistance during the Kargil War against Pakistan in 1999. Even the Congress-led governments between 2004 and 2014, under prime minister Manmohan Singh, “watered down” official condemnation of Israeli military actions against the Palestinians, Ms Haider said.

But she pointed out that it was a BJP prime minister — Atal Behari Vajpayee, in 2003 — who first invited an Israeli prime minister to Delhi on a state visit. Another BJP leader, Jaswant Singh, was the first Indian foreign minister to visit Israel in 2000. A third, the current foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, was the founder-chair of the Indo-Israel parliamentarian group.

Quite apart from the BJP’s history, Mr Modi’s own affinity for Israel will serve as an engine for ties between the two nations.

When he was the chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Modi found himself banned from visiting the United States, in part due to deadly religious riots that raged in the state under his watch in 2002.

But he did visit Israel, in 2006, and “he has a soft spot for countries that welcomed him when he was an international pariah”, Ms Haider said.

Kabir Taneja, a scholar who focuses on the Middle East and is attached to the Takshashila Institution think tank, noted also “that Modi is part of global revitalisation of neo-nationalism, something which is quite prevalent in Israel as well”.

Both Mr Taneja and Ms Haider said Mr Modi’s hardline stance against Islamist terrorism bound him ideologically to Israel.

The affinity goes both ways. Heavy Israeli investment in Gujarat during Mr Modi’s chief ministership helped to keep the state’s economic growth well above the faltering national average – a key factor in his appeal as a prime ministerial candidate in general elections this year. Although no precise figure is available, media reports have cited “billions of dollars” poured into infrastructure, solar and thermal power, agriculture and electronics manufacturing by Israel.

Soon after Mr Modi’s election in May, the Jerusalem-based journalist Jeff Moskowitz wrote in Tablet, an online magazine about Jewish affairs, that the new Indian prime minister could be “Israel’s new best friend”.

“To his Israeli partners, Modi’s profile as an opponent of Muslim extremism — a perceived common enemy, particularly in the wake of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai — only made him more appealing,” Mr Moskowitz wrote.

Mr Taneja called Israel an “excellent defence partner” for India. Israel was likely to be more liberal with transferring top-grade technology to India, compared to the United States, because its economy was more dependent on its defence sector, he said.

India is Israel’s largest defence customer. Over the past three years, Israel has sold India arms worth $553 million (Dh2 billion), according to a government statistic. This doesn’t include India’s recent decision, announced late last month, to purchase Israeli Spike missiles over US Javelin missiles, a deal worth $525 million.

In the past, India has kept Arab sensitivities in mind while pursuing its ties with Israel. For this reason, for instance, under the previous government, a state-owned oil and natural gas firm decided not to invest in Israel’s offshore Leviathan gasfield.

“This is an area which may change under Modi,” Mr Taneja said. “Such brazen fear of upsetting Arab partners and not inviting Israeli companies in the same vicinity so as not to upset them may be balanced out by the Modi administration.”

However, Mr Modi’s government would largely maintain its balance in the region, he added. “India, as it has historically done, will want to make sure it remains engaged with all countries in the Middle East, and not take sides, knowingly or unknowingly.”