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With Modi’s Visit to Israel, India Sheds Historical Baggage

  • Anjana Pasricha

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) walks with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they visit Olga Beach and a water desalination unit operated by G.A.L. Water Technologies, near Hadera, Israel, July 6, 2017.

As Indian television broadcast images of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arriving to a red carpet welcome in Tel Aviv, wading barefoot in the Mediterranean sea with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu and of warm hugs as they set the stage for wider strategic and economic partnerships, commentators noted that New Delhi had shed much historical baggage.

An Indian Prime Minister’s first-ever visit to the Jewish state this week was not just a public acknowledgment of a relationship that grew largely behind closed doors for 25 years, it represents "a normalization of Israel within the Middle East," says professor P.R. Kumaraswamy at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Kumaraswamy, who was in Israel at the time of the visit, says the most important message of Modi’s high profile visit was that "India is going to deal with Israel like it deals with any other country in the region, like UAE, like Saudi Arabia without worrying about the third party."

That was underscored by the fact that unlike most world leaders, Modi chose not to travel to Ramallah or even mention Palestine during the 49 hours he spent in Israel. A brief mention in the joint statement issued by the two countries spoke only about a "just and durable peace in the region."

The message underlined was that India, long a supporter of the Palestinian cause, was delinking the two relationships and moving ahead to openly consolidate a partnership that has much to offer New Delhi in areas spanning from defense and counterterrorism to water and agriculture technology.

"Modi decided to do away with even lip service. He is responding to a ground reality that the Palestinian cause is marginalized," said Kumaraswamy.

Modi’s stand was widely endorsed at home, where in the past fears of upsetting Arab countries and its own Muslim population had prompted it to keep quiet the relationship with Israel.

"Given what Israel can and does contribute in the way of solutions to India’s many problems, New Delhi is right to no longer hold the bilateral relationship hostage to idealistic concerns," said an editorial in the leading newspaper Hindustan Times.

At the same time, analysts stressed that India is not abandoning its support for the Palestinian cause – they point out that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas visited India ahead of Modi’s Israeli visit in May when New Delhi assured him of its support for a two-state solution.

While the foundations of a relationship with Israel have already been in place, Modi’s visit has set the stage for a quantum leap in ties, say analysts.

"The fact that India and Israel are finally normal friends is an important point to underscore," said Harsh Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Program at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation. "I think India sees the relationship with Israel in its own right."

And that will not be restricted to a relationship based on their growing defense ties, although that has grabbed the most attention given that Israel is now India’s third largest weapons supplier, selling arms worth roughly $1 billion annually.

In fact, dominating the conversation were more mundane areas, such as water and agriculture technology, where India could desperately use Israeli expertise.

Among Modi’s stops in Israel were a flower farm and a desalination plant. The two sides signed seven pacts covering areas like water conservation, agriculture and space. India and Israel also agreed to set up a $40 million fund for industrial Research and Development.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center right, meet with with Moshe Holtzberg, center, an Israeli boy whose parents were killed in the Nov. 26, 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, at the King David Ho
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center right, meet with with Moshe Holtzberg, center, an Israeli boy whose parents were killed in the Nov. 26, 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, at the King David Ho

Modi’s meeting with a 10-year-old Israeli boy, Moshe Holtzberg, who was saved by his Indian nanny in Mumbai during a 2008 terror attack, also got wide attention in New Delhi and was seen as symbolically underscoring a partnership that also gets momentum from shared concerns over Islamic terrorism. Moshe’s parents were killed when a Jewish Center in the city became one of the several targets attacked by heavily armed gunmen. The two-year-old baby who escaped was one of the positive stories to emerge from the terror trail.

The Indian-Israeli bonhomie could get another boost later this year when the Prime Minister Netanyahu is tentatively scheduled to travel to New Delhi.

"There is a sense in which the political class have developed a consensus. Past hesitation in terms of acknowledging Israel has gone, and that paves the way for more substantial outcomes," said Pant.

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