January 13, 2018 — New Delhi, India
This piece originally appeared in Sunday Guardian.
There were memorable moments in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel last July—from the demonstrations of obvious personal chemistry between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including their much-photographed walk on the beach near Hadera, to the exuberant reception accorded him by some 8,000 Indian-origin Israelis at a convention centre in Tel Aviv. But the three-day visit itself was far more—and far more strategically significant—than a collection of moments. Its sum was greater than its parts.
The same can be expected of Netanyahu’s reciprocal visit this week to India, with an itinerary that will be packed with political consultations and business-development meetings, one international conference, and numerous ceremonies, cultural events, and site visits.
The Israeli Prime Minister will surely speak of the dramatic growth in strategic cooperation and bilateral trade since India and Israel established full diplomatic relations almost 26 years ago.
He will surely point as well to the agricultural “centres of excellence” Israel has put in place across the country, sharing irrigation and plant science technology with Indian farmers, and to the other areas of scientific and technical cooperation that have expanded in recent years—in laboratories, on factory floors, and in outer space.
And he will certainly pay homage to India’s traditional respect for its small Jewish community, and commemorate the tragedy that befell it more than nine years ago, when a Jewish communal centre was among the targets of a Pakistani-based terrorist cell’s attack on Mumbai.
The message that will be sent from this second visit to India by a sitting Israeli head of government—following the historic visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in September 2003—will be that the world’s largest democracy and the Middle East’s only democracy are more than trading partners, more than platforms for technology exchange, more than attractive tourist destinations for their respective populations. They are allies, with common interests and common challenges.
That’s not to say that India and Israel have to agree on everything. As was evident in the 21 December UN General Assembly vote on Jerusalem’s status, when India was among 128 nations condemning President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise the reality of Israel’s capital, there will be times when India stands apart from the Jewish state. Most longstanding US allies, it must be noted, did not join with the United States and Israel that day in opposing the UN resolution.
Over the more than 25 years of diplomatic relations, in fact, there have been relatively few instances of Indian support for Israel in international forums—even as political, economic, agricultural, and security cooperation intensified. It’s been a glaring anomaly: a mutually beneficial partnership largely hidden—or so the theory went—to avoid alienating certain Indian constituencies and threatening certain Indian equities. Over the last two years, India has begun to deviate from that course, and senior officials have suggested that Israel-critical resolutions are now being carefully examined by New Delhi in this new era of more open contact. But sharp changes may be unlikely.
For decades, the Indian political establishment was reluctant to acknowledge India-Israel ties publicly. The reasons for this were many, including domestic politics in a country with a sizeable Muslim minority, the Cold War, and India’s leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement, the country’s reliance on Gulf oil for its energy needs, and the nearly 7 million Indian workers in the Gulf region, whose remittances contribute more than $30 billion annually to the Indian economy.
While the relationship between Israel and India has flowered under Modi’s BJP government—with a refreshing and exhilarating lack of ambivalence—it must be remembered that it was under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao of the Congress party that formal bilateral ties were established. The foundations for the current growth trajectory were laid during both Congress and BJP administrations, working with Israeli leadership and with diaspora and community organisations in the United States and elsewhere, including the American Jewish Committee (AJC)—an organisation that for more than a quarter-century has advocated and celebrated closer India-US and India-Israel ties.
A unique contribution by Prime Minister Modi has been to successfully de-hyphenate India’s relations with Israel from those with the Palestinians. His visit to Israel in July, noted for the fact that it did not include a stop in Ramallah, was an announcement to the world that India’s interests in the region, specifically its strategic and economic interests with Israel, are separate from, and unmediated by, India’s traditional support for an independent Palestinian state and its relations with the Arab world.
In May 2003, four months before Prime Minister Sharon’s visit to India, the Indian National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, addressed the AJC Global Forum in Washington. He spoke of his country’s “historical affinity with the Jewish people” and its “common strategic interests” with the United States.
Foretelling the growth in trilateral ties that have occurred over the last 15 years, he declared: “India, the Unites States and Israel have some fundamental similarities. We are all democracies, sharing a common vision of pluralism, tolerance and equal opportunity. Stronger India-US and India-Israel relations have a natural logic.” In the coming days, with the visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu and an entourage of Israeli business, political, and civil society leaders, we will see new evidence of the appeal and power of that logic.
Jason Isaacson is the American Jewish Committee’s associate executive director for policy.