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India’s Israel relations, the Middle East and China

Indian diplomacy refuses to call Modi’s friendship for Israel and the change in bilateral relations since 2014 a revolution. This caution is justified. It is wise not to antagonize the Arab world unnecessarily. It is true that Indo-Israeli links were growing steadily for twenty years and Modi was merely the culmination of a long process. But a revolution it is, nonetheless. Under Congress Party rule until 2014, interrupted only by BJP rule under Prime Minister Vajpayee from 1998 to 2004, Indian leaders allowed the relationship between India and Israel to grow but refused to meet any Israeli leader in public or even in private. The only exception was an invitation to the Israeli President to visit India in 1997 and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s visit to India in 2003 while Vajpayee’s BJP was still in power. While no Indian leader had ever visited Israel, their trips to all Muslim Middle Eastern countries were common.

Modi put an end to this anomaly in modern diplomatic history immediately after his election. He had a long, cordial telephone conversation with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu which was made public. He removed obstacles to Israeli defense sales and promised to boost economic and technological relations. But his most significant and visible changes were political. In May 2014, two months after Modi’s victory, Israel went to war against the missile attacks on Israel’s population by Gaza’s Hamas rulers. this was the third war between Israel and Hamas since they came to power in Gaza. For the first time ever, India refused to condemn Israel’s military actions.

On July 15, 2014, there was uproar in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament as the Communist, Muslim and Congress opposition parties walked out in protest. The government’s parliamentary affairs minister admonished the Parliament that domestic politics must not control India’s foreign policy. This constituted an admission, for the first time ever, that India’s automatic support for the Palestinians against Israel was motivated by fear of India’s Muslims and not so much by moral considerations, as the Congress Party had postulated. It was clear that Modi’s victory had eroded the constraining power of India’s Muslims and broken a seventy-year old taboo of Indian politics. This taboo said that a politician who was not hostile or at least cool to Israel could not be India’s leader because this would offend India’s Muslims. Surely all Indian politicians, not only those of Modi’s party, have taken note.

In the following two years India stopped automatically supporting all UN and UNESCO resolutions against Israel. It continues to support some resolutions, particularly when they address the Jerusalem Holy Sites that resonate among India’s Muslims. However, India has abstained from others, also for the first time ever. Clearly India was no longer “in the Arab pocket”, nor in anybody else’s pocket. In the fact of these adjustments in approach, there were no major hostile Muslim reactions, neither inside India nor out. A Saudi Arabian daily carried a commentary which explained that India was now taking a different road than in the past in accordance with its national interest. It also said it was important for the Arab world to maintain good relations with India.

In October 2015 President Pranap Mukherjee paid the first state visit of an Indian President to Israel, and in November 2016 Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin paid a reciprocal visit to India; he was received with royal honors. This prepared the ground for the most important and long expected Indian visit, that of Prime Minister Modi himself. In July 2017 Modi  arrived on a historic three-day visit to Jerusalem. As the flags of India went up on the roof of the King David Hotel where he stayed, something clicked in the Israeli public. Apart from American President Trump a few weeks before, no more important foreign dignitary had come to Israel for a long time. Two significant events distinguished this visit. One was widely discussed in and out of Israel. The other was barely noticed.

The first was the event that didn’t happen. Modi did not go to Ramallah to greet the Palestinian leadership, even perfunctorily. He had invited the President of the Palestinian authority to Delhi a few weeks earlier in order to maintain an appearance of balance and repeated the traditional statements of support for Palestinian rights and the Two-State  solution. For nearly all important foreign visitors to Israel a short visit to Ramallah was thought to be compulsory. Not so for Modi. The message he seemed to convey in deeds (but wisely, not in words) was that India knew the Arab Middle East very well, that Palestine was not the main issue of the region and while the Palestinians merited help and sympathy they did not have the right to make anyone’s friendship for Israel conditional on fulfillment
of their own aspirations.

Again, the Arab reaction was minimal, a murmur of disappointment by the Palestinians. The second, barely noticed event was Modi’s official visit to a British Commonwealth War Cemetery in Haifa where Indian soldiers who fought and died in 1917/18 under British flags are buried. They fell in battle to eject the Ottoman Turks from Palestine. Millions of Indians served under British flags in both World Wars. General Allenby, the commander of the British forces in Palestine in World War I had praised their courage and military valor. So now did Modi. He eulogized them as brave Indians, not as British. Gandhi mentioned their sacrifice in the 1920s but no Indian leader before Modi had done so for a long time. There is a general amnesia in India about this aspect of Indian history: there is little honor for an Indian to have fallen in battle for the British Empire. Why did Modi decide to offer his new reading of Indian history? The beginning of this paper mentioned Modi’s quest for great power status, and great power in the 21st century requires military pride and strength. Could this be the reason?