PM Netanyahu and India's Modi.
(photo credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)
NEW YORK – Israeli-Indian ties moved up a notch Sunday when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met in New York with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, marking the first meeting between the two countries’ prime ministers since Ariel Sharon visited New Delhi in 2003.
Then, as now, the ruling party was not the Congress Party of the Gandhis and Nehrus, a party deeply sympathetic with the Palestinians, but rather the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Congress’ lack of sympathy for Israel can be traced backed to the country’s founder, Mahatma Gandhi, who in 1938 wrote the following about the prospect of a Jewish state: “The cry for a national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me.”
“The sanction for it is sought in the Bible, but the Palestine of biblical conception is not a geographical tract,” he said, adding that “[i]t is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.”
Israel and India did not establish diplomatic ties until 1992, and those ties were kept largely under the radar until the BJP came into power in 1999. Among the reasons for this was the Congress Party’s historic lack of enthusiasm for the Zionist project, as well as the Indian government’s concern – partly because of domestic political considerations – not to antagonize the country’s huge Muslim population, which today stands at some 150 million.
Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee changed that when he invited Sharon in September 2003, for a threeday visit that was cut short because the prime minister rushed home following multiple suicide bombings hours apart in Israel. But the visit, short as it was, sent a signal: India, thankful for the military help rendered by Israel in its 1999 war with Pakistan, was taking the relationship out of the closet and to a different plane.
Until a year later, when the BJP lost power to Congress, and the collaboration went back into the closet.
Although the business ties, as well as the robust military relationship between the two countries continued (trade has grown from $200 million in 1992 to $4.4 billion today, with Israel the largest supplier of arms to India outside of Russia), the bonds were very low profile – not many high level visits to attract attention.
Indeed, the only senior level Indian minister to visit during the last decade was former foreign minister S.M.
Krishna, and he did not come until 2012.
India’s interest in the Modi-Netanyahu meeting on the sidelines of the UN did not take anybody by surprise in Jerusalem, since a significant upgrade in the relations was largely expected after Modi – who visited Israel in 2006 as the chief minister in the western state of Gujarat – won the elections in the spring. Modi knows Israel, appreciates its economic success and is well aware of what it can offer, beyond the traditional realm of diamonds and military hardware. When he was the chief minister in Gujarat, trade ties expanded into the realms of solar power, water management and pharmaceuticals.
Modi’s appointment of Sushma Swaraj as foreign minister was a welcome sign, since she served from 2006 to 2009 as chairwoman of the Indo-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group, and visited the country in 2008, praising Israel at the time for proving a “reliable partner” in India’s 1999 war with Pakistan.
Over the summer, during Operation Protective Edge, the Modi government pushed back against a move to condemn Israel in parliament, and Jerusalem was – for the most part – satisfied with the public position New Delhi took during the operation.
With the exception of voting inside the UN Human Rights Council in favor of sending a probe to investigate, New Delhi’s relatively balanced positions on the fighting were appreciated in Jerusalem.
(Voting against Israel at the UN has historically been a way for New Delhi to appease its Muslim population unhappy with the countries’ burgeoning ties.) This is not the first year that both the Israeli and Indian prime ministers will be attending the UN General Assembly at the same time.
But it is the first time in more than a decade that they’re to meet – which says much about the direction Modi is interested in taking these ties.
The “sky is the limit” in Israeli-Indian relations, Netanyahu told his counterpart at the opening of their talks held in a ballroom of Manhattan’s Palace Hotel, where Netanyahu is staying during his five days in New York.
According to Netanyahu’s office the two men discussed Iran, the threat of Islamic terrorism, which India has suffered badly from over the years, and possible cooperation in the fields of hi-tech, cybersecurity, water conservation and agriculture.
“We are two old people, some of the oldest civilizations on earth,” he said. “But also two democracies, proud of our tradition, but also eager to seize the future. I believe that if we work together it will be for the benefit of both our peoples.”