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

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.

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.

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