MODI TAKES A DEFINITE STANCE
Bonhomie with Netanyahu breaks 70 years of cold vibes.
If Israel had to wait for seven decades before an Indian Prime Minister visited the country, as the Israeli premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said, the reason is the change that has taken place in recent years in India.
For much of the 70 years when the relations between the two countries were no more than coldly formal, India's non-aligned status, which made the US accuse it – not without reason - of being pro-Soviet, persuaded New Delhi to look askance at any country which was in the American camp, as Israel was.
If that outlook was a fallout of the international scene, the internal reason was that the Congress government at the centre felt that any proximity towards Israel would alienate the Indian Muslims. That this attitude persists among a section of the minority community is evident from the regret expressed by the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader, Asaududin Owaisi- that Narendra Modi was confining his trip to Israel and not going to Palestine.
Through all these years, the Congress leaders tried to maintain a balance between Israel and Palestine by visiting both the countries when touring the region.
If Modi is the first to break this "protocol", the reason is that his party does not subscribe to the Congress's idea of placing both Israel and Palestine on the same footing. As a result, the BJP has taken its rejection of what the party calls the secular camp's policy of minority appeasement in India to the international arena.
Since the BJP has no need to win Muslim hearts and minds because it does not get their votes, as Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad recently said, Modi had little hesitation in dispensing with the practice of following up a visit to Tel-Aviv with one to Ramallah.
In any event, the BJP has always seen the conflict between the Palestinians and the Jews as a Muslim vs. non-Muslim issue, which is why it has long been an admirer of Israel because it is obviously on the winning side. It is for this reason that the hardliners in the saffron camp want India to pursue the combative Israeli tactics vis-a-vis Pakistan.
Although the BJP has reiterated its commitment to the two-state solution, there is little doubt that this declaration is a lip-service to an idea whose time is unlikely to come in the foreseeable future, if only because Israel has no hesitation in continuing to build housing complexes on occupied territories for the Jewish settlers, thereby gradually reducing the land available to a Palestinian state and making it ultimately unviable.
It is doubtful, however, whether the average Indian Muslim is too bothered about how India calibrates its relationships with Israel and Palestine. He may be upset over the television footage of harsh Israeli action in Gaza or elsewhere, but so is almost anyone.
It is a subject, however, which mainly provides grist to the mills of politicians on the Left of the spectrum. At the same time, there is an element of admiration for the success with which Israel has managed to insulate itself to a considerable extent from terrorists.
It is not accidental in the context of the present saffron-Zion bonhomie that the first visit by an Israeli Prime Minister to India took place in 2003 when Atal Behari Vajpayee's government was in power. After that visit by Ariel Sharon, it took another 14 years for an Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel for the first time.
In the intervening period when a Congress-led coalition government was in office, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh "barely mentioned Israel during his 10 years", as noted by Nicolas Blarel, Assistant Professor of international relations at Leiden University and author of "The Evolution of India's Israel Policy".
Curiously, however, India's coolness towards Israel did not prevent Tel-Aviv from helping at times of difficulty as when Israel provided 81 mm and 120 mm mortars and artillery guns during the 1962 border conflict with China, according to former army chief V.P. Malik.
In 1971, too, Israel delayed returning to Pakistan the F-86 Sabre aircraft which had been sent there for maintenance. During the Kargil war, Israel expedited the delivery of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) for which orders had already been placed.
There is little doubt that the blossoming friendship between Netanyahu and his "dost", Modi, will lead to a further enhancement of strategic and other collaborations between the two countries. Even if India looks forward mainly to learning water management tactics from Israel, it is the latter's security techniques which will be of considerable interest at a time when India is facing almost continual infiltration of terrorists from Pakistan.
If an element of hyperbole marked Netanyahu's remarks such as about a marriage made in heaven, the reason perhaps is that he has rarely been praised by world leaders. Known as a hardliner, Bibi's relations with even US Presidents have been fraught as with Barack Obama, for instance.
Then, there was Jimmy Carter's controversial book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, about which The Guardian said: "in the West Bank with its confiscated land, unequal allocation of water resources, fortress-like settlements, security fence and segregated roads, it (the word apartheid) is fitting enough".
Modi's visit may have been meant to mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel but, unfortunately, it took place on the 50th anniversary of Israel's confiscation of Arab land.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)