Tel Aviv Beckons: What India’s public diplomacy means for the region

India Israel

Even as India faces tough criticism from international observers for having abstained from voting on a recent UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution that condemns Israel’s actions during the July/August 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Israel in October and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intention to visit Tel Aviv in the near future marks a clear shift in the diplomatic relationship between the two countries.

Since the establishment of formal diplomatic ties in 1992 the two nations are often thought to be ‘isolated democracies’, as they continue to operate in highly militarised regional neighbourhoods and have a mutual benefit in fighting Islamic terrorism across borders in the Middle East. Strategic relations between the two nations have largely focused on the sale of defence equipment and technology, although agriculture and information technology also form a key aspect of India’s economic and trade relations with Israel. India is the largest buyer of Israeli defence equipment, and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has in the past developed and launched a military satellite for Israel. Similarly, some recent estimates from the Embassy of India in Tel Aviv suggest that bilateral trade between the two countries is set to cross $5 billion in the next few years. In this context, the strengthening of diplomatic ties under the BJP-led government in New Delhi points towards the fact that a more open rapprochement that is already underway.

Balancing Act

It is possible to argue that while recent developments might have served to bring India’s strategic relations with Israel into focus, there has been no fundamental change in the relationship. Israel has been a strategic partner for India for the past decade and a more favourable diplomatic climate has presented itself at the most opportune moment for the Narendra Modi government to improve upon what has already been built by previous governments in New Delhi. The same can be argued in the case of India’s position on Palestine. Vikas Swarup, spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, recently spoke in defence of India’s decision to abstain from the UNHRC vote, and pointed out that India is still very firmly in support of the Palestinian cause. It is unclear, however, what aspect of the Palestinian cause has been most vehemently taken up by India at various international forums. More specifically, the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israeli Defence Forces and the grave human rights violations committed by the latter have been referred to as areas of concern by India, but the country has failed to take a firm stance on either issue at the United Nations.

India’s strategic ties with Israel, therefore, operate at two levels: on the one hand, it is moving towards a solid military relationship with Israel and is welcoming of all forthcoming defence support from the country. On the other hand, India also seeks to maintain its current position on Palestine. Many observers however, have pointed out that India may no longer be able to sustain this careful balancing act, and Mr Modi’s impending visit to Israel might indeed compromise on the goodwill that India has enjoyed thus far, from the current State of Palestine.

Although a more fundamental change in the relationship might not visible, a steady transformation of priorities is definitely underway. As the Modi government reviews India’s voting record at the UN concerning the Palestinian issue, a marked shift in India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Palestine seems to be forthcoming. Israeli defence support is no doubt extremely crucial to India’s own national security concerns, and strategic relations between the two countries, therefore, will rely on India taking a more firm stance on Palestine. However, given Mr. Modi’s eagerness to bring India’s relationship with Israel into the public gaze, if India does choose to take on a firmer stance, it is unlikely that it is going to be stronger than it has been in the preceding years.

Implications for India’s foreign policy

What then, does this increasingly public diplomatic exchange with Israel mean for India’s foreign policy?

Firstly, it will communicate among West Asian capitals India’s serious intention to fight the rise of Islamic terrorism in the region. It is an oft overlooked aspect of the country’s strategic relations with Israel given the dominance of the Palestinian issue in diplomatic discourse. India’s relationship with Israel can also serve to function as a strong buffer against Pakistan, if India is willing to use Israeli defence support more aggressively in its neighbourhood through both military and diplomatic means.

Secondly, an increased public exchange will also help in establishing India’s foreign policy as a force to reckon with, especially in India’s interactions with states in the Middle East and West Asia. The ambiguity surrounding New Delhi’s foreign policy decision has for long been a cause of mistrust and suspicion towards Indian engagements in the region. However, an open diplomatic exchange has the potential to propel India towards more meaningful strategic relationships with key international actors.

Thirdly, while Mr. Modi’s enthusiasm is a definitive development, it has the potential to cast India in a negative light concerning the Palestinian question. The BJP-led government in New Delhi, however, can avoid this by continuing to maintain its prevailing voting record in the UN. A modification in voting patterns that serves to reduce Indian involvement to the level of abstention will only serve to communicate diplomatic indecision, an aspect of international relations that Israel has been deeply uncomfortable with in the past. India has the potential to emerge as a strategic actor in international relations by choosing to not follow the path of least resistance. In the current diplomatic climate however, this does not seem to be the case.

The Way Ahead

Strategic relations with Israel are an aspect of Indian foreign policy that has been kept away from the public gaze for more than a decade. However, an increasingly visible rapprochement between the two countries comes with a curious combination of opportunities and obstacles for India. It remains to be seen whether New Delhi chooses to engage in diplomatic camaraderie with Israel in the interest of its national security, or whether it decides to use the public gaze as a means by which it can push forward the Palestinian cause more strongly in the UN.

(Shagun Gupta is Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)