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Modi visit marks deepening relations between India and Israel

03/07/2017


Modi visit marks deepening relations between India and Israel

First official visit to Jewish state by an Indian PM puts seal on warming relationship.


In 1947 Albert Einstein was persuaded by Zionist leaders to write to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, asking him to support the creation of the state of Israel. Nehru declined, explaining that “Palestine is essentially an Arab country, and must remain so”.

Seventy years later, Narendra Modi will consign his country’s ambivalence towards Israel to history as he becomes the first Indian prime minister to pay an official visit.

Mr Modi’s trip, which begins on Tuesday, puts the seal on an increasingly close relationship, underpinned especially by billions of dollars in arms sales. It is also another step in a shift by the world’s largest democracy away from its traditional Soviet cold war allies and towards to the US and the west.

“This is a historic moment,” says Ashok Malik, a fellow at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation. “It is part of India’s modernisation, both in terms of the economy and foreign policy.”

During the three-day visit, Mr Modi will discuss trade with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as addressing a crowd of around 4,000 people of Indian origin in Tel Aviv.

But he is not planning to travel to Ramallah to visit Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. While Mr Modi hosted Mr Abbas in Delhi last month, this trip will be focused on India’s expanding defence, technological and commercial ties with the Jewish state.

“Mr Modi is de-hyphenating relations,” says PR Kumaraswamy, who teaches on the Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Its links with Israel are no longer merely an aspect of its policy towards the Palestinians.”

Indian politicians have traditionally been reluctant to support Israel, not least because of the risk of angering the 14 per cent of Indians who are Muslim. But the trip marks the latest stage of a decades-long rapprochement pursued by both countries for their own reasons.

For the Indian prime minister, Israel is an important source of military and agricultural technology, while many of his supporters believe India and the Jewish nation face a common threat from hostile Muslim-majority neighbours. 

Meanwhile, India is a key plank of Mr Netanyahu’s pivot away from its traditional trading partners in Europe, which have been critical of Israel’s 50-year-old occupation of territories earmarked for a Palestinian state, and towards the rising economies of Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

India is now by far the biggest destination for Israeli arms exports, with $599m worth of sales last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Israel is the third-biggest exporter of arms to India, behind Russia and the US.

India is now by far the biggest destination for Israeli arms exports, with $599m worth of sales last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Israel is the third-biggest exporter of arms to India, behind Russia and the US.

In April state-owned defence group Israel Aerospace Industries struck a deal it described as a “mega-contract” worth nearly $2bn — the largest in Israeli history — to supply India with air and missile defence systems.

India has also in recent years employed Israeli technology to help it manage its water supplies, from drip irrigation systems in states such as Gujarat to a proposed desalination plant near Chennai.

“We don’t bring the hardware, we don’t bring money or investments,” says Daniel Carmon, Israel’s ambassador to India. “We bring the technological cherry on the top of the cake.”

But while the visit marks the full normalisation of relations, the two countries have been co-operating closely since their early days as independent countries.

In 1962 Israel provided weapons to Indian forces fighting China. It also gave India arms in 1971 during the war with Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

It was not until January 1992, just over two years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the two countries formed diplomatic ties. But seven years later marked a key point in the relationship, when Israel became one of the few countries to help India in the Kargil war against Pakistan, providing surveillance drones and laser-guided missiles.

Tensions remain between the two, especially over India’s habit of voting against Israel at the UN. But the election of Mr Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party in 2014 has accelerated the warming of relations.

“Before this, India was reluctant to play up its relationship with Israel,” says Mr Kumaraswamy. “It was like a girlfriend they were not ready to bring home to meet the parents. But the BJP has always had a soft corner for Israel. And there is a section of Indian public which is anti-Muslim and feels Israel is an anti-Muslim state.

https://www.ft.com/content/2e86e43a-5bf1-11e7-9bc8-8055f264aa8b

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