Modi in Israel: A watershed moment in India's foreign policy

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"The people of Israel eagerly await your historic visit," Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted in April this year, responding to Narendra Modi's message on the social network.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Well, the wait is over with Modi's visit to Israel, which is the first by an Indian Prime Minister. Though this might be enough to mark it as a historic visit, the importance of the trip comes from other important underlying factors as well.

The trip, which would be Modi's 66th foreign visit in his tenure of just over three years, is in many ways a watershed moment in terms of Indian foreign policy.

India's foreign policy, especially in terms of two countries, Israel and Sri Lanka, has been highly dependent on the equations of domestic policy. In particular, due to a segment of the population, Tamils in the case of Sri Lanka and Muslims on the Israel-Palestine issue.

It is thought by many, and not entirely without justification, that important foreign relations with countries important to India's strategic interest have been coming secondary to such domestic concerns. With the governments being highly concerned about, maybe too much so, on how the domestic population would react to a strengthening or cutting off of ties when it comes to both these countries.

Finally though, with Modi first reaching out and making multiple trips to Sri Lanka, unlike other prime ministers of the past not overly concern on the reactions in Tamil Nadu, and now with the trip to Israel, he seems to have broken the invisible restrictions, which had restricted India from openly reaching out to both.

It is in this background that Modi's trip to Israel should be seen as a major change with domestic politics and especially that of appeasement not coming in the way of foreign relations.

The late blooming of India-Israel relationship

Modi's latest visit by the very fact of it being the first such one, makes it a departure from the past, but in reality, it is a culmination of the slow but steady shift of the relationship between the two countries, which has seen them come closer after decades of almost non-existent meaningful diplomatic ties.

While India became independent in 1947, the state of Israel came into existence a year later. Even though born at almost the same time, the nature and timing of their relationships have not been the same and as strong as would be expected.

Though anti-colonialism was one of the reasons given by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, for not choosing to have ties with the country. The fact that Arab-Jew conflict with deep roots in history before and after what is termed Israel's occupation of a disputed territory, along with the huge Muslim population at home played a big part in the delay of strengthening of ties is not lost on anyone.

However, this started to change slowly beginning 1992 when India finally decided to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. Such a change was also linked with the end of the Cold War, with the US rising as the sole superpower in the world. India which though in theory had mostly followed the principle of non-alignment when it came to picking sides between the US and the USSR, had had closer ties with latter till the 90's at least.

But following the shift in terms of balance in international politics and also that of political parties in control of the government in India- BJP led NDA coming to power under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and displacing the Congress at the centre of such policy making- the country began a journey of a closer relationship with US and Israel, both of which are each other's strongest allies in the world.

This is where the India and Israel's ties started developing further. An example of this is the defence deals, which supplied US arms to India coming from Israel, especially during the Kargil war, as the US-India ties were constrained at that time following India's testing of nuclear weapons.

Following this visible acts of growing ties came in the form of acts such as the visit to Israel by then Home Minister, L.K Advani, in 2000, which was the first such trip to the country by a senior minister of India.

Such opening up of ties were then followed up during the Congress-led UPA era. For example under the UPA, apart from increasing trade, India in 2009 took a milder stand on the Goldstone Report, which had shown Israel's blockade of Gaza to be illegal and termed its actions of violating international law.

What to expect under Modi

This stand has been continued under the current regime, with a major change in the form India's choices in the United Nations in regard to Israel. In 2015, India abstained on a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution which had called for an International Criminal Court probe into war crimes by Israel. This was followed up by a similar step by India on the resolution in 2016 and 2017.

Under Modi, the journey towards closer ties with Israel has not only continued but has done so at a faster pace and more openly. As can be seen by the current visit, which is just a culmination of closer ties since BJP came to power again in 2014. President Pranab Mukherjee, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj have already visited the country.

These visits, like those under the previous government, have been able to strengthen ties in a varied range of areas such as agriculture, water conservation, science and technology, trade and investment among others. But though these might be important, and more so for India, given the technology and methods it can learn in fields such as agriculture and water conservation, the biggest area of cooperation between the two will continue to be defence.

With India currently being one of the largest importers of defence equipment in the world and Israel being the second largest supplier to it, the ties in the area are just going to get stronger. This can be seen by Israel Aerospace Industries being awarded contracts worth 2 billion dollars for providing medium range surface to air missile systems to the Indian Army, the largest such contract for Israel's defence industry.

Along with this, the fact that both countries have been termed countries which are facing a grave threat of terrorism, the current relationship between the two are seen to be deeper than just based on bilateral trade.

And the bonhomie that Modi and Netanyahu have shown so far, the former's method of forming personal ties with the leaders as a method of getting the countries closer will in all probability be seen at its finest display yet during his three-day visit.

A Balancing Act will be required

All the bonhomie and closer ties through agreements in various fields aside, the fact that Modi can by no means go overboard in India's opening up of total agreement with Israel, will not be lost on him.

This is not only based on the reason of a large Muslim population at home, which like that of the whole world sees Israel as an occupying force in Palestine, and its action in the area as subjugation and attack on Muslims. But also due to India's ties with different Arab countries, and others such as Iran, who have very close ties with India.

Even in the case of Palestine, India has always be seen as a partner which has raised and helped voice concerns of the people of the area. A major change on this front will be seen as a diplomatic disaster given the importance of countries like Iran in terms of trade for India.

This seems to be the reason why the BJP government had taken steps such of ensuring that External Affairs Minister Swaraj and President Mukherjee visit Palestine as well on their respective trips to Israel. Such a pattern though will be broken in the latest visit, as Modi is not scheduled to visit Palestine.

And what can be seen as a clear to attempt calm fears of others due to such an open display of closeness with Israel, in a statement consistent with the stand of the Indian government's of the past, Modi said, "India believes in a two-state solution in which both Israel and a future Palestinian state coexist peacefully." He added, "A final-status agreement should respect the sentiments and address demands of all affected parties."

This is where the challenge of such a visible step in relation to an important strategic country which is disliked by other close allies of India, will be presented to Modi. And he will have to convey to such allies that growing relations with Israel is a not a negation of India's ties with them. Rather, they are a necessity for the country given the changing circumstances of its needs and that both relationships can run on a path parallel to each other instead of being a case of choosing between one or the other.

All said and done, the trip is quite clearly a coming out in terms of foreign relations as it has just made the point that foreign relations with other countries cannot be based on a domestic policy of appeasement. This is the reason why it is unlike any other foreign visit made by him so far.

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