Displaying a shift from the previous Indian administration, the Modi government has initiated high-level political engagement with Israel. Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. Soon after, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh travelled to Israel in November on his first trip outside India after assuming office. Simultaneously, Prime Minister Modi also received former Israeli President Shimon Peres on November 6, 2014. President Peres was in India to boost cooperation in trade and technology, as well as to launch the Australia-India-Israel joint project on technological research and development. He also met Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
Peres referred to Modi as a “world leader, a true partner in confronting global challenges and a friend of Israel”. Modi cultivated deep ties with Israel as the chief minister of Gujarat. He took new initiatives including pharmaceuticals, water management, water recycling plants, agro-research, advanced agriculture technologies, and solar power. Modi invited Israel to partner in the 2014 Gujarat Agro Tech Global Fair. Now it has been proposed to set up a corpus fund for industrial development.
While in New York, Modi and Netanyahu agreed to expand cooperation in the above fields and discussed computer software and cyber security as emerging areas of collaboration. Prime Minister Netanyahu extended an invitation to Modi to visit Israel. Modi had visited Tel Aviv in 2006, when he was the Gujarat Chief Minister. Modi’s outreach then to Israel was developed independent of the policies of the Congress-led UPA government that came to power at the centre in 2004.
Despite strong defence and trade ties with Israel, the UPA government did not initiate any significant diplomatic activism towards Tel Aviv. The only senior ministerial level visit to Tel Aviv during the UPA government’s tenure from 2004-2014 was that of then Foreign Minister SM Krishna’s trip to Israel in 2012. His visit, however, was termed as a “regional visit” and included trips to Jordan, the UAE and the Palestinian National Authority in West Bank.
Before Rajnath Singh, L.K. Advani was the last Indian Home Minister to visit Israel in 2001. L.K. Advani, accompanied by then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, set up the Indo-Israeli Joint Working Group on Counter-terrorism. A Joint Defence Cooperation Group was also established in 2001 and since then, defence and counter-terrorism cooperation have been the hallmark of Indo-Israeli bilateral relations.
In 2003, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited India and the two states inked a number of bilateral agreements. However, the UPA government failed to maintain the momentum with reciprocal high-level engagements with Israel.
Following Modi’s electoral victory, the BJP government has provided a boost to India-Israel ties. It is increasingly speculated that Modi will become the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. Sushma Swaraj, the new Foreign Minister, has also stressed on the importance of deeper engagement between India and Israel. Swaraj met with Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Liberman in New York on October 1, 2014 and accepted his invitation to visit Israel in 2015. Sushma Swaraj has held the post of the Indo-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship group since 2006.
While deeming Rajnath Singh’s visit as “very significant”, Prime Minister Netanyahu has conveyed Israel’s keenness to be a part of Modi’s “Make in India” campaign. “Israeli industries, including the defence industries could ‘make in India’ and thereby reduce costs of manufacturing products and systems developed by Israel”, the Prime Minister stated. Prime Minister Modi invited up to 49 per cent foreign investment in India’s defence sector, under the “Make in India” project.
Since the partition of the subcontinent, India’s Israel policy has been influenced by ideological inhibitions and domestic politics. Traditionally, the Indian leadership has been opposed to the creation of a state based on religion. Moreover, given a large Muslim population, internal criticism over New Delhi’s position towards Israel has been largely articulated through the Islamic prism. Concerns over moderating Pakistan’s influence in the Gulf and the Islamic world have also been reflected in India’s diplomatic relations with Israel.
However, India’s huge stakes with Israel and the Arab world have necessitated that New Delhi approach each relationship independently. Israel and the Arab states also want a stronger partnership with India and political transformations in the region have evolved the traditional nature of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Common strategic interests and diplomatic pragmatism, thus, have marked the Modi administration’s policy towards Israel.
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