By Sanjay Shukla:
The Indian President and the External Affairs Minister have visited Israel within a period of four months. This indicates a blossoming of relations between the world’s biggest democracy and the Middle East’s only democracy. The Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj was on a visit to Israel on the 17th and 18th of January while President Pranab Mukherjee visited the country on 15th October last year.
These are clear signs of India’s willingness to take bilateral relations to new heights. But at the same time, India does not want to build an entirely pro-Israel or Anti-Arab image. Significantly, Israel, due to its frequent conflicts with neighbouring countries like Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and others, and its anti-Muslim policy, does not have good relations with Arab countries. And since India imports most of its crude oil from Arab countries, and since many Indians work there, we are bound to maintain healthy relations with the Muslim world. Hence, India has not been able to openly express its friendship with Israel so far.
The visit by the President and External Affairs Minister to Israel were followed by a visits to Palestine. This may be seen as a balancing act.
Nevertheless, the question of the maiden visit by an Indian Prime Minister to the Jewish land still looms. On both occasions, before the President’s and the External Affairs Minister’s visit, the Prime Minister was expected to visit Israel. But each time, Indian foreign policy did not allow him to do so.
However, their visits have paved the way for the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu’s first visit to India. Although the official announcement of the visit is due, according to the Indian foreign ministry Netanyahu is set to visit India this year, which Sushma Swaraj has confirmed recently.
It is relevant here that since the ruling party, BJP, which is known as a pro-Israel party, swept to power in May 2014 the relations between both countries have become increasingly open. It was during the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that for the first time an Indian foreign minister (Jaswant Singh) visited Israel. This was in the year 2000. That was followed by the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to India for the first time in 2003.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been an admirer of Israel since he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, which has the maximum Israeli investment, is still reluctant to visit Israel.
Instead, this year, Modi is set to visit Saudi Arabia in what may be seen as an act to balance growing relations with Israel.
So far, India and Israel have maintained a time-tested covert relationship, due to international political and socio-economic reasons. But the effect of Modi’s expected visit to Israel on India’s relations with Gulf and other Muslim majority countries is worrisome. And what turbulence it would cause inside the country is also something worth considering?
Since Modi came to power, there has been an emphasis on foreign policy. He has visited over 30 countries in less than 20 months. He even paid a visit to nations like Mongolia and others which no Indian premier had ever visited.
As such, his visit to Israel has come to be expected by both sides. It has been due since 2003 when the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited India.
In order to not harm its relations with the Arab and Muslim world, and due to opposition within the country, the government is reluctant to show its predilection for Israel. This is why the Indian premier has been hesitant to visit Israel.
However, regardless of diplomatic visits, the bilateral ties between two countries are surging ahead in various fields like defence, science and technology, healthcare, cyber security, education etc.
Israel is one of the largest exporters of weapons which is worth billions in dollars. While excluding military exports, bilateral trade is around 4.52 billion which makes India Israel’s tenth largest trade partner overall.
Israel, which is a pioneer in the agricultural sector, has been engaged in many agricultural projects in India, providing advanced agricultural technology in arid and semi-arid areas. We can learn from Israel how they converted the desert into cultivable land with the help of technology. India could cooperate with Israel in the technology and security sector, as Israel has proven itself in those areas.
But at the same time, being historically a non-aligned nation, it will be a challenge for India to maintain that status for healthy international cooperation.