Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a historical visit to Israel yesterday to mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1992. Modi was welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top protocol team, including rabbis and religious leaders, at the Ben-Gurion airport, a gesture usually reserved for the Pope and the US presidents. According to Israeli Ambassador to India Daniel Carmon, Modi’s visit is of “unprecedented importance” in relation to India’s ties with Israel.
During his three-day visit Netanyahu will accompany Modi to most of the events planned. The two sides are expected to sign several agreements which span innovation, development, space and technology. Modi’s visit does not include a trip to Ramallah which is a break from a customary protocol for leaders usually strive to maintain political ties with both Palestine and Israel.
Israel attaches more importance to Modi’s visit than that of any other prime minister who has visited Israel for several reasons. India is a mouth-watering market for exporters with its 1.3 billion population and Israeli exporters are looking for a bigger share of this. Israel has been working hard, for a long time, to reach the Indian market. Israel’s export volume to India was $1.1 billion last year without even counting diamonds and defence technology. Indian investment in Israel is only $17 million though both countries work hard to enhance these economic ties. Just ahead of Modi’s visit the Israeli government approved a 23-page document including bilateral measures and a $79.6 million budget.
Aside from import-export deals, Israel made the biggest security deal in its history with India by selling $2 billion worth of missile defence systems. The Israeli state owned IAI declared three months ahead of Modi’s visit to Israel that they had secured $2 billion worth of contracts with the Indian army for an advanced medium range surface-to-air missile system with an additional long-range air and missile defence system for an Indian aircraft carrier.
Israel is receiving its share of Modi’s $250 billion budget modernisation programme for the country’s military equipment by being the second biggest arms supplier to India after Russia. Additionally, Modi is expected to sign a deal allowing India to buy more weapons from Israel. In addition to supplying arms Israel is planning to supply agricultural technology to India by initiating a plan to transfer Israeli water sanitation and drip irrigation equipment to India for projects such as cleaning up the Ganges River. According to reports, Modi gives priority to these kinds of projects.
This historic visit of Modi reveals India’s policy shift towards Israel. In the light of India’s traditionally neutral position towards Middle Eastern issues, Modi’s decision to pay a visit to Israel shows a major shift from his predecessors’ policies. Actually, it is not the first time that Modi has visited Israel. In 2006 he paid a visit while he was the chief minister of Gujarat. Since that moment to the 2014 election he was considered a friend of Israel. Some even argued that this policy shift was due to his visit in 2006 when he promised to come back to Tel Aviv as prime minister.
Given its anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist approach, India has been traditionally one of the non-Arab countries which is a strong supporter of Palestinians. India voted against the UN partition plan in 1947 and became the first non-Arab country to recognise the authority of the PLO. However, this strong support was replaced with a more balanced view towards the Palestine-Israel issue. India began to take a positive attitude to Israel when the they developed official relations in 1992.
This change became more open during Modi’s term. While Modi was preparing himself for his new position in 2014, India voted against Israel in the UN. However, a year later, during Modi’s term, India was among the five countries that abstained against Tel Aviv on the UNHRC resolution for action against Israel for committing war crimes in Gaza. This was repeated in March 2016 when India abstained against Israel in the UN.
On the other hand, the Palestinian side keeps a balanced view towards Modi’s visit. According to Palestinian Ambassador to India Adnan Abu Alhaija, the relationship between Palestine and India remains undamaged, unchanged and is more deep-rooted than Israeli-Indian relations. Both people have suffered colonialism.
In line with that authorities in India and Palestine have visited each other several times. After the latest visit of Palestinian President Abbas to India, both sides declared positive messages and India their strong support for a Palestinian state. However, the Muslim community in India are not happy with the visit. According to Reuters, a member of India’s federal parliament from a regional group that promotes Muslim rights, Asaduddin Owaisi, said: “Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel will only strengthen its occupation of Palestine”.
Seemingly, the main reasons that enabled both countries to get together for a formal visit are Modi’s nationalistic view, future vision for India and security policy. Modi was known as an Indian nationalist and supporter of free market economy. The Indian prime minister developed a nation-building initiative called “Make in India” with the aim of transforming India into a global design and manufacturing hub. But this initiative launched in 2014 primarily to respond to the worst GDP growth rate which occurred in 2012-2013.
This enabled Modi to generate a free market economy perspective that aims to contain business leaders and potential partners around the world. Israel wants to take the biggest share from that initiative. At the same time, India is facing some security challenges that led Congress to criticise Modi’s policy as a failure. Modi is planning to overcome these challenges with a strong army that has a cutting edge Israeli defence system.
Even though India has stressed that they maintain a balanced policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli issue, the reality on the ground in Palestine suggests otherwise. India is developing its relationship with Israel as Israeli policy towards Palestinians becomes harsher and harsher by the day. In relation to the current settlements, and the will of Netanyahu’s government to build more settlements in the West Bank, the hope for the two state solution which is supposed to conclude with a sovereign Palestine state with its own army along the 1967 borders is eroding.
Comparing India’s support in the past and today, the Palestinians’ situation is worse due to the fact that India and Israel are closer now. It is an issue of concern whether or not India will maintain their position that there must be a just solution to end the occupation which has been ongoing since 1947.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.