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11 July, 2017

Waltzing through the Middle East

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Narendra Modi, who has set a few globe-trotting records, last week became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. “We have waited 70 years for you,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as he embraced him.

The Israeli authorities extended to Modi the kind of welcome that was given previously only to the Pope and the President of the United States, and the world media has since been trying to unravel the meaning of what one writer described as his “public love fest” with Netanyahu.

When the United Nations proposed carving the state of Israel out of Palestine in 1948, India had pleaded in vain for a two-state solution. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said Zionists had offered bribes to win India’s support and held out threats to his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who was the leader of the Indian delegation to the UN.

When the state of Israel became a reality India recognised it but refrained from establishing full-scale diplomatic relations with it in a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians. However, Israel was allowed to establish an honorary consulate in Mumbai to look after commercial and cultural matters.

During the 1962 border war with China, Nehru turned to Israel for small arms and it readily helped. Today India, the world’s largest importer of arms, buys about 40% of Israel’s arms exports.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the fountainhead of the Hindutva ideology which is the driving force behind Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, was initially an ardent admirer of Hitler and Mussolini. After World War II, impressed by the high-handed measures Israel took for survival in an extremely hostile environment, it switched its admiration from Fascism to Zionism.

Over the last four decades, relations with Israel have grown steadily, more rapidly under non-Congress governments than under those led by the Congress, which is more alive to the sensitivities of the Arab world and of India’s own Muslim minority.

When the Janata Party was in power and AB Vajpayee was the External Affairs Minister, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan visited India secretly. That government fell before it could take any meaningful step to boost bilateral relations.

In 1988, the Rajiv Gandhi government granted recognition to the state of Palestine and four years later the Narasimha Rao government raised diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level.

While improving relations with Israel, the Indian government reiterated its commitment to Palestine. It also extended continued support to the Palestinian cause in international forums. Indian leaders visiting Israel included the Palestinian Authority headquarters at Ramallah also in their itinerary.

A year ago India abstained on a UN Human Rights Council resolution critical of Israeli actions against Palestinians. Some observers have interpreted this and Modi’s failure to go to Ramallah as clear signs of a pro-Israeli shift in India’s position in tune with the RSS thinking.

International media quoted a Palestinian official as saying India’s relationship with Israel appeared to be developing at the cost of its moral, humanitarian and historic commitment to Palestine.

Indian officials, however, maintain that decoupling of Israel and Palestine does not make any material difference to India’s traditional policy. They point out that Modi had received Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi in May. On that occasion he had reaffirmed India’s unwavering support to the Palestinian cause and expressed the hope “to see the realisation of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestine coexisting peacefully with Israel”.

Modi has waltzed through 49 countries so far. He has chosen his destinations with due regard for traditional ties as well as new realities. 

Hindutva’s ideological affinity apart, military and economic considerations are driving India and Israel closer together. Since Modi came to power, India has reportedly bought $662 million worth of arms from Israel. It has also signed several defence deals, including one for the purchase of a missile defence system costing $2 billion.

India, which is facing the prospects of acute water shortage, hopes to benefit from Israel’s farming and water technology innovations. One of the agreements signed during Modi’s visit envisages the setting up of a $40 million fund for joint research and development projects.

Israel appears to be looking to India for a political dividend in the form of greater respectability for itself. --Gulf Today, July 11, 2017.

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