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Israel may draw the wrong conclusions from Modi’s visit

State visits are a good indicator of the strength of relations between countries, by the very fact that they take place, by the hospitality bestowed on the visiting leader, and by the deals reached. Based on all these criteria, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel last week was very successful.

The host country showed the prime minister of the world’s second most populous country how very welcomed and loved he is, and how important good relations with it are for Israel. Modi responded in kind and hit all the right notes in praising Israel, its economic and technological achievements, and ever-closer bilateral relations. More tangibly, agreements on economic cooperation were signed.

But disappointingly, in three days of official visits there was no mention of the Palestinians or of the need to renew the peace process. This was not accidental. Neither Modi nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were prepared to let the “small” matter of 50 years of occupation interfere with the growing bromance between them and their countries.

Witnessing the pouring salutations between the prime ministers reflects the radical change between the two countries in the last quarter of a century, which have been pursued more vigorously since India’s 2014 election, when Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a sweeping victory.

Since its independence 70 years ago, India was one of the leaders of the developing world advocating for the plight of post-colonial countries. But Modi’s India is more interested in advancing its economic, political and military development than getting involved in Middle Eastern politics, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is a sea-change for two countries that established diplomatic relations only 25 years ago, mainly because of India’s denunciation of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Moreover, Modi’s visit is the first ever by an Indian prime minister. This speaks volumes about India’s change in its previously critical view of Israel, and its past hesitancy toward warmer relations with it until it finally ended its occupation of Palestinian land.

Past Indian prime ministers approached relations with Israel with more caution, aiming not to let their support of Palestinian self-determination negatively impact growing trade and strategic cooperation with Israel. Indian leaders also had to consider the support and empathy that the large Muslim minority in the country has for the Palestinians. This required a high level of diplomatic subtlety, which Modi does not necessarily possess.

With India’s historic empathy for the Palestinian cause, it is in a unique position to play its part in brokering peace. The Indian prime minister gravely missed an opportunity by not visiting the West Bank and shunning a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Yossi Mekelberg

He is not as concerned with being popular among Indian Muslims as some of his predecessors, as he thrives on a very particular nationalist-chauvinist Hinduism. Consequently, India of late separates — many would argue artificially — between its relations with Israel and the Palestinian issue.

This was clearly expressed recently by India’s Ambassador Pavan Kapoor. He told Israel’s Jerusalem Post: “We have come to the stage where we are confident and comfortable enough that we can deal with the Palestinians and Israelis separately, on their own merits.” What he meant is that ever-closer Indian-Israeli relations cannot be put at risk for a conflict that very few in the international community believe will be resolved any time soon.

A quick glance at the state of relations between the two countries shed light on Kapoor’s statement. Israel is second only to Russia as a major source of defense equipment, to the tune of more than $2.6 billion so far in 2017 alone. Joint air force exercises are also planned for later this year. But defense and intelligence collaboration are only part of the story.

Deals on increasing trade, scientific and technological cooperation are coming thick and fast. Tourism, agriculture, academic collaboration, high-tech, health and the movie industry are only a partial list of areas in which India and Israel find common ground. Total bilateral trade rose to $4.2 billion in 2016, 20-fold since diplomatic relations were established in 1992.

Not all of this new drive has been initiated under Modi, but he, more than anyone before him, has warmly embraced ties with Israel. He very much has an “India First” approach, aspiring to establish his country as a world power to be reckoned with. 

Arguably, India could have taken the opposite approach. It could have used its emerging close ties with Israel to become a driving force behind a renewed peace process. As a major trade partner and strategic ally, Modi commands respect and influence in Israel.

With India’s historic empathy for the Palestinian cause, it is in a unique position to play its part in brokering peace, or at least be proactive with other elements in the international community to bring a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Modi gravely missed an opportunity by not visiting the West Bank and shunning a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.