Salom Modi

Recent warmth between New Delhi and Tel Aviv is not at the cost of Middle East

By Mridu Kumari

Custom and tradition of past were rendered irrelevant when Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to land in Tel Aviv on July 4 for a three-day visit.  He was also the first Indian leader who didn’t visit Palestine during his Israel trip, a departure from the past that was tweaked without even a whimper from the opposition.

In October 2015, when President Pranab Mukherjee undertook his West Asia visit, it was ensured that he moved towards Palestine too. This was done in accordance with India’s policy of maintaining balance in relationship with both Israel and Palestine. Almost the same move was followed by External affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Like President Mukherjee, she landed first in Palestine on January 17, 2016 and then took land route to reach Israel the next day. A glimpse of de-hyphenation in India’s engagement with these two important West Asian countries was before the world when National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Israel in March without touching Palestinian soil.

Indeed, foreign policy and strategy never trek along stagnant, isolated and moribund route. It takes a move, sometime drastic one, in pursuance of a nation’s objective. It was seen in April 2016 when India joined 32 countries in condemning Israel for its excavation and exclusion policies around the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. But when it came for voting on a resolution against Israel on the similar issue on October 18, 2016, India absented from the move.

 No plausible reason was provided for this U-turn, but it was clear that New Delhi’s diplomatic priority changed under the Modi administration which looks at Israel for ‘Make in India’ initiative, for its quest for innovations and technology, for  defence purchase, cyber security,  ‘Namami Gange’ project and others.

 Israel matters to India in leveraging influence on the US, the superpower whose pugmark can be seen on almost on all major international issues. And then in consonance with rising global profile of India, decision makers concentrate more on national interest than ideologies and symbols. Perhaps, Palestine doesn’t fit in to that bracket. But that doesn’t mean leaving Palestinians to their own fate.

 India’s stand is that comprehensive resolution of decades long Israel-Palestine conflict could be addressed only through sustained political dialogue and peaceful means only. India is for the early resumption of dialogue between Israel and Palestine. In terms of assistance, India is among a few non-Muslim countries which work to uplift and progress of Palestine and its people. Under South-South cooperation, India has set up centre of excellence in IT and innovation in Ramallah and several vocational training centres across Palestine. India is also involved in establishing a techno park in Ramallah and institute of diplomacy, and India-Palestine Centre of Excellence in ICT in Gaza.  Despite this, the Indian prime minister will not undertake a visit to Palestine.

However, in order to keep Islamic countries of the Middle-East in good humour and save the country’s neutral image from any damage, India invited Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on May 16 to New Delhi for summit level meeting. It is unclear when Modi will himself go to Palestine. Nevertheless, India under Modi is doing what the country couldn’t do under previous governments.

 It has embraced Israel as the latter is known for its technology and expertise to deal with terrorism. In the last week of February, giving a push to strong India-Israel defence cooperation, the Modi government cleared the acquisition of million dollar worth of medium range surface to air defence missile (MR-SAM), jointly developed by India’s Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) and Israeli Aircraft Industry. It should be noted that Israel is ready to develop cutting edge defence technology under ‘Make in India’ initiative and this was discussed in detail when Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had come with huge defence delegation in November last year. During that visit, the two countries had signed for the purchase of two more Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS). India has already acquired three Phalcon AWACS from Israel and they are mounted on Russian built IL-76 aircraft. India had also signed the deal for 10 Heron TP unmanned air vehicles in the course of the Israeli President’s visit.

 In the course of first ever Prime Ministerial visit, defence was surprisingly missing from the talking agenda of the two countries however, they signed altogether seven MoUs. That means talks on the purchase of some equipment were not complete, because India is keen to fill the gaping hole in critical areas of radar and stealth technology. Despite this, in no way India-Israel closeness would impact New Delhi’s engagement with the Gulf countries which are home to around 7 million Indian expatriates and suppliers of 60 percent of India’s oil and gas needs. In fact, India doesn’t want to disappoint Israel, nor does it want to upset Islamic world by creating rapture in its ties with Palestinians.

This sentiment is inherent in India’s stand mouthed by President Pranab Mukherjee during his visit to Jordan, Palestine and Israel two years ago. “India would like to see the people of Palestine living side by side and at peace with Israel,” the President had said while addressing Palestinians in Ramallah, capital city of the Palestine National Authority. In November 2016, despite being seen as pro-Israel, New Delhi sent M J Akbar to Palestine to hold first ever Joint Commission Meeting between India and Palestine. This year onJanuary 26, UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan became chief guest at India’s 68th Republic Day function. This was his second visit to India since February 2016. Earlier, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit this Gulf country in 34 years when he landed in Abu Dhabi in August 2015. Indira Gandhi was the last Indian Prime Minister to undertake a state visit to the UAE in 1981.

Modi’s two days visit to Riyadh in March-April 2016 further cemented relation between the two countries on several fronts, including terrorism. Modi was the fourth Indian Prime Minister to visit Saudi Arabia after Manmohan Singh in 2010, Indira Gandhi in 1982 and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1956. Of the total 7 million Indian expatriates in Gulf countries, over 2.96 million work in Saudi Arabia, the largest expatriate community in the country. With Iran, India’s relations are robust. Despite some hiccups on the energy front as Iran has decided to sale Farzand-B offshore gas field to a highest bidder, instead of India, the country which spent $95 million on its feasibility study. In reaction to this, India has brought a cut in the import of oil from Iran for refineries. And recently, adding salt to India’s injuries, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly mentioned Kashmir for the first time in seven years in his speech, equating the situation in Kashmir with that of Yemen and Bahrain.  Through his twitter handle, Khamenei asked Muslim world to openly support people of Bahrain, Kashmir and Yemen and “repudiate oppressors and tyrants who attacked people in Ramadan.” This statement has not been welcomed by Indians, yet it has not impacted bilateral relations between the two countries. Prime Minister Modi visited Iran in 2016. India’s relations with Qatar, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Bahrain are improving with passage of years. In fact, India’s balanced approach in dealing with Middle-East and West Asia is what has made New Delhi most sought after nation among the countries of the region.