“Historic!” That is what many people have termed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Israel. Yes, indeed it is. This is the first time an Indian PM has visited Israel. It also commemorates the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. To express the extent and future of the relationship, many people have said that "the sky is the limit" of cooperation between New Delhi and Tel Aviv.
With Modi's visit, many in India and Israel believe that strategic partnership will be the beginning of India's blind support to Israeli actions against Palestine, especially in multilateral arena. While the pro-Israel lobby in India wishes this to happen, the anti-Israeli factions hope it doesn’t. These hopes and worries were primarily the upshot of India's abstention on UNESCO vote against Israel in May 2017. Foreign policy scholars hailed the vote as a significant shift in New Delhi's policy towards Israel. However, giving Tel Aviv a blank cheque on Palestine issue at the multilateral forum is not only unrealistic but will certainly affect India's international image as well.
Moralpolitik Was Realpolitik
Foreign policy experts identified three-four phases and milestones in India-Israel relations. First, a policy based on Gandhian and Nehruvian principles; sympathy towards the Palestinian Arabs. Second, post-cold war reorientation and commencement of official diplomatic links. Third, India's efforts to separate India-Israel and India-Palestine relations in the second half of 2000. Final, a more "constructive engagement" under Prime Minister Modi.
The first phase was not only characterized as idealistic but was also considered as a policy to appease India's sizable Muslim minority by supporting Palestine. Nehru opposed the United Nations’ two nation plan and voted against it. He even declined Albert Einstein's appeal to support the UN's partition plan. However, seeing this as purely idealistic is misleading. Nehru's policy towards Israel and Palestine was both pragmatic and principled. 1962 war is a case in point. On Nehru's request, Israeli Premier, Ben Gurion sent shipments of arms and ammunition to India. In 1965 Indo-Pak War and 1972 Bangladesh War, India received military assistance from Israel. These cases showcase India's diplomatic leverage over Israel and the victory of ‘principled’ but realist diplomacy of the former.
Unlike India’s Israel experts allege, this period was neither the period of nonrelations nor a zero- sum game. The underlying feature of this phase was Senior-Junior partnership, the best strategy for a state to enhance its national interest. Israel was India's junior partner who is willing to assist India, even in the context of the later continuously opposing the former in the international arena. This relationship was unique and cannot be measured by superficial foreign policy knowledge. It requires an in-depth understanding of context and actors and their interests. Such statecraft; receiving help from a country whose policies we oppose invariably, is hard in both principle and practice.
Support for Palestine is Not Support for Muslims
India’s support to the Palestinian cause was not determined by the policy of appeasing the Muslim minority population at home. It was based on international ethics, morals, and principles. Facts, not assumptions, established Israeli occupation of Palestine and its humanitarian consequences. The UN, for instance, many times found fault with Israel and said that Israel has been violating all international norms and rules including Geneva Conventions. Israel always counter this with the theory of international conspiracy against Jews. However, recently, Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin himself said that the law, which sponsors Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories marks Israel as an “Apartheid State.” Therefore, for India siding with Palestine was siding with the truth, not with Muslims. It is in fact an act which emanates from the memory of our colonial past. For India, the proclaimed leader of the third world has only one option to choose, moral support for the suppressed and their fight for existence. However, it does not conceal the other side, by invoking Palestinian cause, the Indian elites used the Muslim sentiments for their electoral benefits. Exploited by these elites, Indian Muslims approached Palestinian issue as a Muslim issue to be solved by global ummah.
Modi’s Israel Policy is Pragmatic, But
As an emerging power with global power aspiration, India demands advancement in science and technology research and innovations. Israel is a pioneer in these fields, and hence, India's long-pending modernization process in defence, agriculture, water, and space technologies will get a boost with Israeli cooperation. Leaving the usual diplomatic rhetoric such as "marriage made in heaven" and "I for I" aside, Modi's visit produced several positive outcomes. The decision to establish a bilateral Technology Innovation Fund worth $40 million for research in industrial development is one. Similarly, agreements on water conservation, agriculture, atomic and space cooperation are a great leap.
However, India should be careful in taking the dividend of bilateral cooperation into multilateral forums as supports to Israel. India's recent voting patterns in multilateral institutions point towards a shift along this line. This was also against New Delhi's claim that India-Israel relations and Israel-Palestine conflict must be treated separately. The UNESCO vote shows that shifting trends in India-Israel relations is reflecting in India's approach towards Israel-Palestine conflict as well. Here the context should be noted. India gave moral support to Israel when the global community including the all-time ally and guardian of Israel, the United States condemned the violations related to Israeli settlement in West Bank. Breaking the previous tradition of working on principles, India gave a wrong signal to the international community.
Modi's policy is one of the easiest diplomatic practice; you scratch my back, I will scratch yours. What his predecessors exercised was the hardest, receiving strategic support even in the context of censuring the other on its violations against Palestinians. The first one does not need any statecraft; however, the second one requires a lot. Here one thing to be taken care is Israeli approach. Tel Aviv looks to New Delhi in purely business terms. For instance, a few months ago, Netanyahu greeted Chinese Premier, Xi Jinping with the same words he conveyed to Modi-"marriage made in heaven." On the occasion, Israeli premier also said that "Israel is a perfect junior partner for China."
The realist may say principles and morals are not a matter of facts in international politics. It is, indeed. Politics cannot evade moral judgment. Indians believe in Dharma, the right way of living. Duties, rights, laws, conduct, and virtues are the heart of this belief. We would not forget our obligation as a post-colonial nation. We should not avoid virtues against interest. Therefore, in India-Israel relations, as the Israel lobby in India claims, the sky is not the limit. It should be principles. Only that makes a difference in this all against all, Hobbesian world of international relations.
The writer is an Associate Fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.