CAMERA Fellow Hriday Sarma

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to make an official visit to India in January next year- 2018. There is a high possibility that his visit coincides with India’s Republic Day celebration. Netanyahu will then become the first ever Israeli premier to attend this epic annual event of India as a chief guest.

Western media is abuzz with speculations surrounding Netanyahu‘s upcoming visit to India. Many strategic experts and academicians have described that this would be a reciprocal visit to the one undertaken by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July this year- when for the first time in history an Indian Prime Minister visited Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands in Tel Aviv. (PTI Photo)

However, not all sections of people in India, Israel and worldwide are happy with this growing intimacy between the two countries. Left-leaning advocates are expressing scorn over India’s present foreign policy stance of openly embracing Israel, which marks a deviation from its traditional position of supporting the cause of Palestinian statehood. They view this partnership as an ‘unholy alliance’ targeted against Muslims in the Middle East to deceitfully engage them in continued gory wrangling.

It needs to be understood India-Israel relationship is not a recent development; rather this has been in existence since time immemorial, save for a short duration of the Cold War period. The Bible and Talmud say that the Kingdom of Israel of the First Temple period and the Jews of Babylon had trade links with India. The High Middle Ages, the 11th and 12th centuries, were a turning point in Indo-Jewish relations. Documented records from this time, such as letters, printed maps and private papers, show a steady stream of long-distance Jewish traders travelling to India. They established extensive links with native societies in India, including marriages, exchange of traditions and cultural values and so on. Subsequently, person-to-person contacts between visiting Jews and Indians continued uninterrupted, and increased with time.

India initially granted de jure recognition to Israel on September 18, 1950. However, India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s sympathetic stance towards the Arabs and his adamant refusal to Ben Gurion’s bids for political and diplomatic support led to freezing of relationship between the two countries. Despite the political deadlock, the two countries maintained certain clandestine military and intelligence contacts throughout the Cold War era. India for the first time initiated diplomatic links with Tel Aviv in the early 1990s under the leadership of P V Narasimha Rao – a veteran of the centrist Indian National Congress party. Thereafter, the bilateral relationship has blossomed to where it stands today. This relationship has got a boost under the ruling stints of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a nationalist Indian political party that openly states in its manifesto to establish closer ties with Israel as an objective.

Today India is facing security threats from its neighbouring countries- China and Pakistan- and from terror elements within its territories. However, it is not at a position to either pursue Israel’s constant on-the-frontline posture against its hostile Arab neighbours or replicate the strict Israeli security model at the home front. The formidable standing of India’s nuclear powered neighbours, huge domestic population (including approximately 15 % Muslims) and low-tech service providing nature of its economy makes it difficult for India to act like a Westphalia based sovereign state prioritizing the interests of one nation. Moreover, the Islam found in India is different from the rest of the world. The Muslims there have made significant contributions as citizens in arts, sciences and public life, and not specifically as members of a community. In essence, India and Israel can be allies; but India’s security problems, political dilemmas and social dynamics are remarkably different from Israel.

With the BJP coming to power in India in 2014 with an absolute majority, there has been a spurt in the level of activities between India and Israel, such as military sales and purchasesscientific and technological collaborationsacademic research and scholarshipsprivate sector business partnershipsreligious discussions, and so on. For now, an ideal bonhomie seems to exist between the two ‘civilization-states’. However, things are not as good as it looks from outside. The far-right political parties from both countries, like Shiv SenaLehava, and their likes, are trying to hijack this mutually complimenting relationship for securing their vested interests. They are airing hatred and grievances against other communities, both religious and socio-political, by branding India and Israel as crusaders against Muslims. Whereas, in reality India-Israel relationship is a timely partnership between two countries, which maintained friendly relations in the past, and currently adjusting their friendship in tune with changing global geopolitical realities.

Both India and Israel need to accommodate concerns and interests of all sections of the political spectrum. The inclusion of the political left and the center forces in the policy-making process will ensure that the political right is not able to secure vested interests under the pretext of substantiating national interests. For now, Modi and Netanyahu are all set to elevate India-Israel relationship to the level of a ‘strategic alliance’- which ought to benefit both countries equally.

Contributed by Hriday Sarma, CAMERA Fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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