Modi’s diplomatic gamble on Israel
When Modi met Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on the sidelines of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral in Singapore last month. Rivlin apparently reminded him about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s invitation to visit Israel.
Soon after the Modi-Rivlin tête-à-tête, India’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin let the cat out of the bag. He told reporters that the “exact dates and formality” of Modi’s Israel visit would be decided through diplomatic channels.
But finalizing dates will be a daunting task considering the upheavals in the Gulf region and fears that Modi’s unprecedented visit to the Jewish state might endanger India’s larger strategic and economic interests in West Asia which New Delhi can’t afford to ignore at any cost.
“It would certainly be a defining moment for India-Israel ties as this is a relationship Modi is keen on strengthening,” a diplomat told an Indian newspaper on condition of anonymity. “But there are real concerns of a larger blowback, and there’s unlikely to be a decision that doesn’t take those into account.”
“There’s too much at stake in a visit by Modi to Israel just now. That whole region is already on fire, and what Netanyahu is doing is to throw a tanker of oil into that fire.”
There are differences over India’s wholehearted support for the deal clinched by Iran and six world powers — the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany. New Delhi badly needs Iranian oil and has welcomed the nuclear agreement as it will lead to lifting of economic sanctions against Tehran clearing the decks for Iranian imports.
But Netanyahu — who Modi acknowledges as a close friend — is viciously opposing the nuclear deal even at the cost of vitiating US-Israel ties. This fundamental conflict of interest between New Delhi and Tel Aviv can be resolved only by deft diplomatic tightrope walking.
India was left squirming in embarrassment in February when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon declared in New Delhi after meeting Modi that “Iran is involved in every conflict in the area, employs relentless terrorism and spreads terrorism around the world.”
Another sore point between Israel and India is the two-state solution, which New Delhi subscribes too. Netanyahu also used to believe in the formula. But he went berserk in the final lap of last month’s Israeli elections and announced that a Palestinian state was out of the question. However, Modi can’t endorse Netanyahu’s somersault, as that would mean going against the grain of India’s stand. Mani Shankar Aiyar, a Congress Party MP, has bluntly told Modi about the pitfalls of going to Tel Aviv, “despite Israel being the largest supplier now of India’s defense requirements,” because “Israel’s domestic policies are repugnant to much of what we have stood for all these years, and are diametrically the opposite of our own approach to inclusivist nation-building in diversity.”
“And it is the Arab”, says Aiyar, “not the Israelis who are hosting seven million Indian expatriate workers who constitute our largest single source of remittances in foreign exchange. India’s consistent pro-Arab policy has been a principal cause of the warm welcome our workers have enjoyed. In trade too, Arab destinations like Dubai have emerged as principal outlets for Indian exports. Our stakes in the Arab world are high.”
Modi visited Israel in 2006 while he was chief minister of Gujarat. But Modi met Netanyahu in New York last September, which led the latter to exclaim that the “sky is the limit” of India-Israel relations. The 2014 meeting was the first high level meeting between India and Israel since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2003 visit to India during A. B. Vajpayee’s prime ministership.
In New York, Modi didn’t meet any Palestinian or West Asian leader underling his natural affinity for Israel and distrust of the Islamic world.
After Modi came to power, only Home Minister Rajnath Singh has gone to Israel. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s proposed state visit to Israel had to be scrapped. Similarly President Pranab Mukherjee’s Israel trip too didn’t materialize. The cancellations reveal that bilateral ties are still tricky. So Modi better watch his steps — and keep in mind the adage that fools rush where angels fear to tread.
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