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Pranab’s West Asia Tour: FIRM TILT TOWARDS ISRAEL By Parul Chandra, 21 Oct, 2015 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 21 October 2015

Pranab’s West Asia Tour


By Parul Chandra


Barely a fortnight after taking over as the country’s Prime Minister in May last year, Narendra Modi spoke to his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu. Tweeting about the conversation, Modi said: “I spoke to PM Netanyahu. We value our friendship with Israel & will script a golden chapter in the history of India-Israel relations.”


The Modi government appears to be well on its way towards inking this “golden chapter” with President Pranab Mukherjee becoming the first Indian Head of State to visit the country between October 13 and 15th


Likewise, he became the first Indian Head of State to visit Palestine and Jordan too as part of his three-nation West Asia swing between October 10 and October 15. 


But it was really the President’s visit to Israel that saw New Delhi crossing the Rubicon. It marked, in a sense, the Indian government’s decision to no longer be bashful about its close and growing engagement with Israel, nothwithstanding its continuing commitment to the Palestinian cause.


In walking the diplomatic tight-rope and skilfully nurturing close ties with both Israel and Palestine in the years gone by, a certain degree of coyness had marked New Delhi’s deepening ties with Tel Aviv.


Though it established full-fledged diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv in 1992, no Indian head of State or government had ever visited Israel. However, India had played host to a State visit by then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon in September 2003. It’s noteworthy that the BJP-led NDA government was in power then, just as the party is leading the government at the Centre now. 


For Israel, the long and patient wait for an official visit by a top-level Indian leader has borne fruit. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in his speech at the special session of the Knesset in honour of President Mukherjee’s visit described it as “a historic milestone in the advancement of the friendship between our two nations”.


India, decided to shed its diffidence on official visits to Israel by top leaders by earlier announcing that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and PM Modi himself will be undertaking visits to the Jewish State in the months to come. After all, in diplomacy a good measure for assessing bilateral relations has always been the exchange of high-level visits particularly at the presidential/prime ministerial level.


The reasons why New Delhi is willing to see bilateral ties move out from behind a veil aren’t difficult to fathom—it’s clearly driven by pragmatism, strategic concerns and economic needs.


India is keen to forge greater cooperation with Israel in sectors such as defence, agriculture, animal husbandry, drip irrigation, IT, cyber security, telecom, pharmaceuticals, solar energy, etc. Besides, the Modi government is keen to see Israeli participation in initiatives such as ‘Make in India’, ‘Digital India’ and ‘Smart Cities’. 


It is also keen to boost its trade and economic ties with Israel. From bilateral trade worth US $ 200 million in 1992 comprising mainly of diamonds, merchandise trade diversified and touched US$4.52 billion in 2014.


According to the Ministry of External Affairs, there are around 300 Israeli investments in India, largely in high-tech and agriculture. Some Israeli companies have even set up R&D centres and manufacturing plants in India. Indian companies, in turn, are making their presence felt in Israel through mergers and acquisitions.


It is the defence sector though that has come to be the mainstay of the bilateral relationship with Israel notching around US$1 billion in annual arms sales to India, ranging from a wide array of missiles to spy and armed drones.


Cooperation in the defence sector got a major leg-up after Israel rushed emergency defence supplies to India during the 1999 Kargil conflict. At present, Israel is India’s third largest supplier of defence equipment.


One reason why New Delhi had refrained thus far from tom-tomming its growing ties with Tel Aviv were the traditionally warm and close ties that India had with Palestine. India was the first non-Arab state to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in 1974 after which it had opened its office in New Delhi.


In the backdrop of the President’s visit to Israel and the expected concern this would evoke amongst the Palestinians, India has gone to great lengths to reiterate its support for their cause. During his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah too, President Mukherjee assured him that India’s “principled support to the Palestinian cause” would continue while calling for a “negotiated solution resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital….” He also told President Abbas that it would continue to work with Palestine in whatever way it could.


India, always generous when it comes to loosening its purse strings for the Palestinians, announced a grant of $5 million by way of budgetary support for the Palestine Authority and five projects worth $17.79 million during the President’s visit.


And yet, despite repeated statements by India assuring Palestine of its continuing support, it is unlikely that this will entirely assuage the latter’s concerns as Israel comes to occupy an increasingly important position in PM Modi’s foreign policy calculus. 


After all, in July this year India chose to abstain on a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) vote adopting a report that condemned Israel for its 2014 ‘Operation Protective Edge’, a military operation in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.


India maintained it abstained as it is not a signatory to the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) referred to in the UNHRC report. The grounds may have been seemingly technical but there’s no denying the fact that the tide has increasingly turned in Israel’s favour.


Israeli PM Netanyahu also took note of this in his Knesset address during President Mukherjee’s visit. He said the growing friendship between the two countries “finds expression in the shift in India’s traditional voting pattern in international forums which conveys what is actually taking place between our peoples, between our governments, between our countries”.


A measure of the importance the current government is attaching to its ties with Israel also came through when PM Netanyahu noted in his speech that he frequently speaks to Modi on the telephone—the two have met on the margins of the UN General Assembly session. And that during their latest such conversation, Modi told him, “We want Israel.”


Music certainly for Tel Aviv’s ears but certainly not for Palestine as it anxiously watches old and trusted friend India’s increasing tilt towards Israel. --- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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