“Out of the closet” has become the accepted phrase to qualify the growing strategic depth in India-Israel ties since Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014. This was the statement the Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon openly made when he visited New Delhi in February 2015.
Most Indian foreign policy commentators have welcomed the public acknowledgment of what had until now mostly been a low-key but robust commercial and defense relationship. However, this description seems somewhat imprecise as this relationship has increasingly become public and normalized. For the past decade, Indian media outlets have regularly publicised the signing of new and important joint ventures in the defence field and covered the repeated visits of several Indian chief ministers to Tel Aviv to seek collaboration and investments on agricultural and water technologies. Yet, if there ever had to be one instance that clearly marked a disclosure of the growing public bonhomie between India and Israel, it is the recent confirmation of Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Tel Aviv.
Hardly a surprise
The importance of Modi’s visit to Israel cannot be underestimated. Modi will become the first sitting Indian Prime Minister to visit the country. His visit will also come after a decade of relative political neglect from the Congress-led UPA government. Various UPA ministers visited Israel over the last decade, including a very symbolic visit in 2012 by the former External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. There has also never been a Prime Ministerial visit to reciprocate the visit from Ariel Sharon to New Delhi in 2003.
However, the announcement of Modi’s impending visit to a country that he and his political party (the Bharatiya Janata Party) have always considered an important and reliable partner can hardly be considered a surprise. In fact, since his visit to Tel Aviv as Gujarat’s Chief Minister in 2006, Modi has been quite open about wanting to develop the political dimension of this relationship. Following his election, the Indian Prime Minister was officially invited by his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in New York in September 2014. Modi also confirmed his intent to visit Israel later when he met Israel’s President Reuven Rivlinon on the sidelines of the state funeral of Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015 in Singapore. Since the political willingness to visit Israel has always been there, the more appropriate question to ask now is this – What circumstances have led the current Indian government to reassess the costs and benefits of elevating this existing relationship?
Paradoxically, it could be argued that the conditions are not ripe for Modi’s decision to visit Israel. The recently reelected Israeli government faces growing diplomatic isolation due to its tepid support for the two-state solution.Given India’s historical and unwavering support for an independent Palestinian state, some have claimed that the visit could dilute India’s traditional pro-Palestine position and disorient India’s international partners that are pushing for a diplomatic solution. Others are concerned that India could compromise its unique multi-aligned position in West Asia by openly supporting the Netanyahu government. India has indeed managed, since 1992, to preserve a pragmatic and delicate balancing act between regional players as diverse as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Israel. Beyond strategic relations with Israel, India also needs to consider its important energy ties with Iran and the Gulf states. Additionally, given the already strong nature of the bilateral ties, one could wonder what new tangible “deliverables” Modi would be able to present on the occasion of this historical visit. Moreover, there is always the risk that a public overture towards Israel could be criticised by some members of India’s sizeable Muslim minority.
In spite of these adverse conditions, there are three main reasons that can lead the current Indian government to believe that the visit is opportune in the present geopolitical context.
First, the current divisions in the West Asian region provide Indian decision-makers with a decisive window of opportunity. This situation is akin to the one observed in the early 1990s when India decided to normalize its relations with Israel. Both the Gulf War and the Oslo peace process had revealed important divisions within the Arab-Muslim world. The Narasimha Rao government was, therefore, able to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel without attracting any strong criticisms from its traditional Arab partners that were divided on the peace process. Similarly today, the new Shia-Sunni (or rather Iran-Saudi Arabia) rivalry articulated on the Yemeni battlefield has moved attention away from the Israel-Palestine dispute and left India again with unprecedented diplomatic leeway. Most regional players are too concerned with Iran to seriously lose sleep over India’s diplomatic overture towards Israel.
Second, the domestic and international repercussions of a visit to Israel are also likely to be limited. While there were strong misgivings vis-à-vis Israel within India until the late 1990s, the last two decades of cooperation have dissipated any strong opposition. The military support provided by Israel since the Kargil conflict of 1999 and the often overlooked but equally decisive assistance provided by Israel in agricultural and water technologies to some Indian states has not gone unnoticed. Additionally, direct interactions between Indian state governments and regional parties (other than the BJP or Congress) with Israel have expanded the number of stakeholders in the present relationship. While it is true that Israel’s policies are increasingly criticised by its Western partners, Tel Aviv has initiated its own successful pivot to Asia by deepening its engagement with China and India. It is also possible that Indian decision-makers are looking at exploiting Israel’s current need to look for alternative funds and partners to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with favorable terms (notably through an opening of the Israeli service sector) or further defence joint ventures. Keeping in mind the developing Sino-Israeli relationship, the Modi visit would also serve to further cement India’s privileged defence ties with Israel.
Third, the Modi government has apparently already anticipated domestic and international criticism by making it clear at the UN that it would not revise its traditional position in support for an independent Palestine nation “at peace with Israel.” In addition, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj emphasised that she would also visit Palestine and Jordan, along with Israel, in July 2015. It has not been confirmed if Modi would visit Palestine but a tour of various West Asian capitals would fit into Modi’s new diplomatic tradition to take in several countries on one visit that also allows him not to single out any country with a solo visit. In fact, maintaining a strong pro-Palestinian stance has never been an obstacle for India to develop robust and mutually advantageous relations with Israel. While Israel and Palestinian relations cannot be completely de-hyphenated, India cannot afford to fall back into the zero-sum game it had followed prior to 1992, when diplomatic ties with Israel were conditional on progress made on negotiations with Palestine.
For these three reasons, Modi is undoubtedly convinced that he can today make this public commitment to a partnership he personally values, while also downplaying the apparent costs. That being said, the government will need to continue to tread cautiously in order to preserve India’s various important strategic, economic and energy interests in the region. Rather than a radical break, one can observe durable continuity in India’s West Asia policy. It is, therefore, not implausible to expect that, besides discussing defence and agricultural ties, the Indian Prime Minister will also urge Netanyahu to resume the peace process.
Nicolas Blarel is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Leiden University, Netherlands, and the author of The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy: Continuity, Change and Compromise since 1922’(Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015).