Modi in Israel: PM Narendra Modi has become the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel – a fact that assumes huge significance and the importance of which can never be overstated. India and Israel enjoy 25 years of deep bilateral ties with defence forming the most important pillar of the relationship. Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu gave PM Modi a red carpet welcome on arrival – signalling to the world and India the importance of the latter’s visit. “Tomorrow, my friend Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive in Israel. This is an historic first visit by an Indian PM to Israel in 70 years; it attests to the fact that our relations with India became closer,” Netanyahu had tweeted.
Israel has been deeply involved in key areas of India’s development, yet no Indian PM has ever visited the country. This is because in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, India doesn’t want to be seen as taking sides. India has always maintained support for the Palestine cause, with a principled stand on a two-state solution. “The relationship between India and Palestine is built on the foundation of long-standing solidarity and friendship since the days of our own freedom struggle. India has been unwavering in its support of the Palestinian cause,” PM Modi had said in May during Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas’ India visit.
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In 2003, during Vajpayee government’s tenure, the then Israel PM Ariel Sharon had visited India. The visit may have been reciprocated, had BJP been voted back to power. Under the UPA government, ties with Israel flourished, but were never openly acknowledged at the highest political level for fear of antagonising Muslims. Modi has not only chosen to go to Israel, but by not simultaneously visiting Ramallah (unofficial Palestinian capital), has given the former country much-needed importance, feel experts.
For Sreeram Chaulia, Prime Minister Modi’s visit is a milestone in India’s foreign policy. “India has for over two decades held back from normalising ties at the highest political level with Israel because of a domestic baggage. Modi, by going to Israel has ended decades of hypocrisy without diluting policies towards Palestine,” Chaulia, the author of Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister, tells FE Online.
“With his visit, PM Modi has clearly signaled that for him ‘India first’ is the way to go and that he is not one to be deterred by vote bank politics. Defence and economic development form the pillars of India’s ties with Israel, which is more than just a strategic partner,” explains Chaulia. “With Modi’s visit, emphasis would also be on boosting civilian bilateral trade ties. Israel can play an important and pivotal role in Modi government’s Smart City and Make in India projects. From water, irrigation to horticulture, many more centres of excellence should be established and expanded,” he adds. “With this revolution in foreign policy, sky is the limit for India-Israel ties. From Israel’s perspective, the visit is historic because that country has always feared isolation,” he concludes.
According to Ashok Malik, more than the outcome, the visit itself is an achievement. “The ties are already strong and have progressed well even without any Indian Prime Minister going to Israel. It is not as if the two will sign deals that cannot happen without the visit,” says Malik, Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. “More than defence ties, this visit is about establishing and furthering friendship and camaraderie at a civilisational level,” Malik tells FE Online. While acknowledging that the trip will deepen ties on the defence, digital economy, innovation and water management front, Malik feels that Modi’s visit is about a friend going to Israel as a steadfast partner – everything else is secondary.
In a joint op-ed in the Times of India, Modi and Netanyahu said that “India and Israel are walking hand in hand into the future as partners.” The two see India and Israel as “genuine partners” for development, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship. Reports suggest that Israel is already one of the biggest arms suppliers to India. From Barak 8 missiles for the Indian Navy to other missile and drone projects – Israel is also contributing to the Modi government’s ‘Make in India’ vision. It is only befitting then, that India should shrug off its hesitancy – and openly embrace an important strategic partner.