India & Israel

Natural allies

Print edition : August 04, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu at the Olga beach in Israel on July 6. Photo: PTI/PIB

Modi and Netanyahu on July 6 with members of the Indian contingent of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, during a visit to the First World War Indian Army cemetery in the Israeli coastal city of Haifa. Photo: Jack Guez/AP

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in July, the first by an Indian head of government, India continues to deepen its ties with the Jewish state.

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the first world leaders to congratulate Narendra Modi after he led his party to a sweeping electoral victory in 2014. The two leaders have known each other for some time and have seemingly formed a mutual admiration society. When Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, he made a few trips to Israel. After taking over as Prime Minister, one of the first announcements he made was about making a visit to Israel. It has, however, taken him more than three years to fulfil his fervent desire to be the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the Jewish state. Israel’s wars on Gaza have brought it much international opprobrium, but the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government dispatched President Pranab Mukherjee to Israel in 2016 even as the Palestinians were protesting on the streets of Jerusalem, Ramallah and other occupied cities.

The Indian President, in fact, faced protests from Palestinian students when he visited Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) is based. Modi, during his visit, did not even bother to go there. Unlike some other world leaders, Modi does not pretend to shed even crocodile tears over the fate of Palestinians. On paper, India still supports Palestinian statehood. When P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas visited New Delhi in June, the Indian Prime Minister reassured Palestinians of India’s continuing commitment to a two-state solution. The Palestinian side has conceded that India has the right to strengthen its relationship with Israel but said that it should not come at their expense. China and India are Israel’s biggest defence customers.

The huge profits Israel earns from arms sales is ploughed back into military research and production, which is used to further strengthen its oppression and occupation of Palestinian land. During Modi’s visit, Netanyahu described the bilateral relations between the two countries as a “marriage made in heaven”. When Netanyahu was in Beijing earlier this year, he said that Israel was the perfect junior partner China needed as it ascended to superpower status, and he used the words “marriage made in heaven” to describe the status of Israel-China relations. Israel’s relationship with both India and China is purely transactional despite the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) claim of ideological affinity with the ruling right-wing Likud Party led by Netanyahu.

The P.A., which has very little credibility in the eyes of ordinary Palestinians, is not in a position to influence many governments in the world. Its own wealthy patrons such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are building strong relations with Israel. Brajesh Mishra, who was National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the first NDA government, had in a speech delivered to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential Jewish lobby group in Washington, called for a Washington-Tel Aviv-New Delhi axis in international politics. Today, that axis is a reality and has expanded to include Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Iran, not Israel, is today the designated arch-enemy of Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia. Palestinians, with a disunited leadership, are more isolated and even more at the mercy and whims of Israel and its patron, the United States, than ever before.

BDS movement

One of the few positive developments for the Palestinian cause is the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the apartheid policies of the Israeli state. The BDS movement has been gaining momentum in the U.S. and Europe. Many European countries have put a ban on Israeli products originating from the occupied territories. Many progressive political parties in the West have been critical of Israel’s policies against the Palestinian populace in the occupied territories. These policies mimic the apartheid policies that were in place during white minority rule in South Africa. In Israel, Jewish and Palestinian students go to separate schools. The education Palestinian students receive is inferior in every respect.

On the West Bank, Palestinians are being slowly pushed into enclaves similar to the “Bantustans” the apartheid regime had set up in South Africa. Another concrete manifestation of this policy is the construction of a “separation wall” that inhibits the freedom of Palestinians in many ways. The Israeli land acquisition law prohibits the sale of land to non-Jews. More than 12 per cent of the land in Israel belongs to the Jewish National Fund. The land was seized from the Palestinians in the first place. Then there is the issue of the Gaza Strip where a million and a half people, packed like sardines, are being blockaded and starved by Israel and Egypt.

All these factors do not in any way have an impact on India’s relations with Israel. In fact, India under Modi has been abstaining from voting on United Nations resolutions criticising Israel for its inhuman treatment of Palestinians. India has consistently been abstaining from voting on a Palestinian-supported resolution calling for a probe by the International Criminal Court into the war crimes committed during the 2015 Gaza offensive, which claimed 1,500 lives and wreaked havoc on the already fragile infrastructure of the blockaded enclave. India started abstaining from these votes after a phone conversation between Netanyahu and Modi in 2015. The Palestinian Ambassador to India, Adnan Abu Alhaja, termed India’s decision “shocking”. Since then, India has been voting in favour of similar resolutions criticising Syria and other countries, which makes its pro-Israeli tilt obvious.

It is no secret that the BJP and its predecessor, the Jana Sangh, had a soft corner for the Zionist project. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh considers Israel a model state where the Palestinians are denied their legitimate rights and neighbouring states are kept overawed by its military might. When the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was allowed to set up its office in New Delhi in 1975, all the major political parties supported the move. The only exception was the Jana Sangh, which organised a demonstration against the PLO delegation that came to open the office. India-Israel bilateral relations started openly flowering after the Congress government established full diplomatic relations in 1992. Before that, military and security relations between the two countries were mainly conducted under the radar. Israeli politicians, senior Ministers and spy chiefs used to make covert visits to India. The security establishment of both countries have had a close relationship since the mid 1960s.

The high-level formal visits started after the first NDA government came to power. In 2000, the then Indian Home Minister, L.K. Advani, became the first senior Indian leader to visit Israel along with a high-level delegation. Since then the floodgates have opened, with Indian Chief Ministers and leaders of all political parties making a beeline for Israel to witness first hand Israel’s claims of prowess in the fields of agriculture, water management, counterterrorism and waging war. Every two or three years, Israel inevitably wages a war. During peacetime, it focusses on “surgical strikes” and “targeted assassinations”. Most of these strikes, which have started occurring with increasing frequency, have been on Syrian Army targets fighting the forces of al Nusra and the Daesh.

The next “inevitable” war of self-defence, according to Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, will once again be against the hapless people of Gaza. In the 2008 conflict, Israeli forces dropped more than a hundred tonnes of munitions on the besieged enclave. It was during the first NDA regime that one of Israel’s premier warmongers and war criminals, the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, visited India. Among the many atrocities he has been credited with is the bloody massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

Modi’s Israeli hosts gave him a red-carpet welcome. Netanyahu personally chaperoned Modi during the visit, and the two leaders were seen in various “hugging” postures and holding hands on a deserted beach on the Mediterranean coast. The two leaders held secret talks on improving counterterrorism coordination. It is not known whether Israel has sold the “Pegasus” spyware to India as yet. It has been in the news recently after revelations that the Mexican government had used it to snoop extensively on opposition leaders and journalists. NSO, the Israeli company that makes it, claims that it sells the spyware to governments on the understanding that it will only be used against criminals and for counterterrorism purposes. It is widely known that the Indian government depends on Israeli expertise for its counterterrorism measures on the Line of Control and in the Kashmir valley.

During the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, the two countries inked many agreements in the areas of defence technology, agriculture, water conservation and space research. India has launched Israeli satellites. The agreements signed include the setting up of a $40-million India-Israel Industrial R&D and Technical Innovation Fund. Israel sells more than $1 billion in arms to India annually and, along with Russia and the U.S., is among the country’s top three arms suppliers. According to official Indian sources, many other multibillion-dollar deals with Israel are in the pipeline, including a $2-billion deal to buy surface-to-air missiles, the purchase of two more Phalcon airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft and four more Aerostat radars at the cost of $1.5 billion.

Modi did not mention the Palestine issue even once during his Israel visit. Only one out of the 22 paragraphs in the two-page joint statement released during the visit mentioned the Palestinian issue. There was no explicit reference to the two-state solution. Instead, the two sides “underlined the need for the establishment of a just and durable peace in the region”. The joint statement “reaffirmed their support for an early negotiated solution between the two sides based on mutual recognition and security arrangements”. Even Australia, which has an avowed pro-Israeli position, had insisted on mentioning the need for a “two-state solution” in the joint statement put out after Netanyahu’s visit to that country in January this year.

Israel wants to create a weak Palestinian state pockmarked with Israeli settlements. The Israelis want to further curtail Palestinian sovereignty by not allowing Palestinians to have their own army or an independent foreign policy. A headline in T he Times of Israel that appeared during Modi’s visit proclaimed: “Modi visit shows that Israel can improve foreign ties without a peace process”. After Donald Trump took over as President of the U.S., he has generally ignored the Palestinian leadership and said that the “two- state” solution is not sacrosanct. He casually said that his administration could live with either a “one-state” or a two-state solution. New Delhi seems to have taken its cue from Washington.

Iran

Netanyahu did not embarrass the Indian Prime Minister by publicly raising the bogey of Iranian-sponsored terrorism in the region. The Israeli Prime Minister has been targeting Iran from all forums, including the U.N. and on state visits to countries that have a good relationship with Tehran. The Iranian leadership was no doubt closely watching the bonhomie Modi and Netanyahu were publicly exhibiting. Iran is also a so-called “strategic partner” of India’s. During Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, he said that Iran was the principal sponsor of terror in the region, supporting the extreme position taken by Israel and Saudi Arabia. The further tightening of military and strategic relations between Tel Aviv and New Delhi will make Tehran doubly cautious. In June, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticised the Indian government’s handling of the civil unrest in the Kashmir valley.

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