Strengthening Eastern ties: Modi's passage to Israel leaves behind 'Palestine'

Indian PM Modi’s decision not to meet with Palestinians when he visits shows his political confidence

INDIA’S AMBASSADOR to Israel, Pavan Kapoor. (photo credit: Courtesy)
INDIA’S AMBASSADOR to Israel, Pavan Kapoor.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is a ritual followed by nearly all presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers who visit Israel: come to the country for 24, 48, or 72 hours, spend most of their time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but make sure to stop by Ramallah or Bethlehem for a few hours for a couple of meetings with Palestinian Authority officials. In this way the visit can be billed at home and abroad not as a visit to Israel, but rather to Israel-Palestine.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who will be the first serving Indian prime minister to visit Israel when he comes here in the first week of July to mark 25 years of the establishment of diplomatic ties – is set to break the mold.
Unless there are last minute changes, Modi is coming to Israel, period. And with this act he will send a strong message to his own people, to Arabs and to Israelis, that he is – as the Indians themselves like to describe it – removing the hyphen from the country’s ties with Israel.
Modi will underscore with this move that India’s ties with Israel stand on their own, and are independent of Israel’s relations with the PA or the pace of the diplomatic process.
And for Israel this is huge, something it wishes the European Union would emulate. In stark contrast with India, the EU as a body – and a number of its individual states as component parts – have linked their pace of development of ties with Israel to the settlement issue or the diplomatic process. Modi’s visit is an indication that the Indians are having none of that.
“We have come to the stage where we are confident and comfortable enough that we can deal with the Palestinians and Israelis separately, on their own merits,” India’s ambassador Pavan Kapoor told The Jerusalem Post in an interview this week in his Tel Aviv office. “Why do we need to hyphenate them? We have independent relationships with both.”
The key word in Kapoor’s comment is “confident.” Modi, he said, is making this historic trip because he feels confident in his ability to do so, despite what others – both inside and outside of India – might say, and how they might interpret it.
And Modi is confident because he remains very popular in India. A poll this week found that three years after his election, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – a right-wing nationalist Hindu party – fully three out of every five Indians, or more than 60%, are satisfied with the job he is doing.
Equally important for his confidence, however, is the stability of his government and his parliamentary majority: the BJP has an outright majority in the Indian parliament, the first time any party has been able to rule without a coalition for the first time since 1984. As such the party is not dependent or held hostage by domestic factors and politics across a wide range of issues, as every other Indian government has been for over three decades.
And this is definitely a factor enabling Modi to make a high-profile visit to Israel at this time, a visit that puts an end to what The Hindustan Times referred to as a policy of “diplomatic distance and security promiscuity” with Israel, meaning the country benefited greatly from tight defense ties since the establishment of relations, but kept a public distance when it came to diplomatic ties.
“Now you have a prime minister and a government that has the full majority of the people, so they can act more boldly and confidently and take decisions,” Kapoor noted.
Kapoor, looking back at the history of Indo-Israel relations, said at times it has been “difficult” to try and manage the relationship since there were always those who argued that since India supported the Palestinian cause, it should “not be doing so much” with Israel.
But times have changed.
“I think it is the sense of maturity that comes with the nation, and it reflects a sense of confidence and comfort level when you can say, ‘No, [supporting the Palestinians] is one thing that we continue doing, but our relationship with Israel is independent of that, and we must continue supporting and working with them because that is in our interests, and you know that you can do both.’”
And the Indian interests in these ties range from the concrete and the obvious – such as massive defense and technological cooperation – to perhaps being able to tap into Israel’s strong relations with the US.
Just a little over a week before coming to Jerusalem, Modi will visit Washington for his first meeting with US President Donald Trump. This visit comes against the background of disagreements between the two countries on issues such as the Paris climate accord and trade.
Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s good relationship with Trump something that can help India in Washington? Kapoor is asked.
“Hypothetically, yes,” he said, adding that India and the US have been working closely for a number of years, and that India is now in the process of developing connections and a relationship with the Trump White House. “The fact of the matter is that wherever you have countries that work together closely, also working with a third country; that can always add up.”
As to whether New Delhi is concerned that its strong and now high-profile ties with Israel might weaken ties with the Arab world, he replied, “I think this government is very frank and open with all its partners. And as you can see, the kind of exchanges that Israel is having with the Arab world is amazing. It’s unprecedented right now. So that speaks for itself. From our point of view it is having the comfort and confidence that we can deal with both relationships in an independent manner.”
In the past it was not only concern about the reaction in the Arab world that put a brake on the willingness of India to move forward openly about its ties with Israel, but various governments were also concerned about how this would play out among India’s 160 million Muslims, a demographic that makes India – after Indonesia – home to the second largest Muslim population in the world.
Asked whether this large minority presents a problem for the government when forging ahead with Israel, Kapoor said: “It is what the government makes of it.” The Modi government has explained that India is not “trying to dilute its position with the Palestinians,” and that New Delhi supports them when it feels they have a strong case, he said.
But, he added, “Modi genuinely feels that we can continue doing what we want with Israel, which is in our interest and in Israel’s interest, and move on in that light, but still support the Palestinians where they want us to, and where we feel it is required and merited.”
PA President Mahmoud Abbas was in India last month in a visit that some interpreted as a “consolation prize” for the upcoming visit to Israel, and Modi declared that India’s support for the Palestinian cause was “unwavering.” He said India wanted to see a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and urged a resumption of peace negotiations.
That position, however, does not mean that India will reflexively support the Palestinian position in every vote that comes before every international organization. India abstained two months ago from the UNESCO vote that detached Israeli sovereignty from Jerusalem. And that was not just a quirk. In the last couple of years, India has on a number of occasions – though not all – abstained, rather than voted for, anti-Israel resolutions.
Inside international organizations, Kapoor said: “There is to a certain degree a lot of group voting, where certain positions were taken by groups, and everyone just went that way. I think that is beginning to change, and we have taken a conscious decision to look at each of these votes on their own merits, independent of what other groups might think.”
Changing voting patterns, however, do not go unnoticed, and Israeli diplomatic officials say that every time a country does not vote on Israel-related issues in an anti-Israel manner as expected, that country comes under considerable pressure by the Palestinians and the Arab world to “get back on board.”
Kapoor said that it is not as if India does not care about the push back, but rather that when the government decides “that this is the way we want to do it, we do it. We are a reasonably large country and don’t normally get pushed around in these matters.”
Netanyahu has spoken over the last couple of years about making strides to reverse the automatic majority of countries that vote against Israel in the UN, something his critics have dismissed as a pipe dream as long as there is no peace deal with the Palestinians.
Kapoor, however, does not think this is necessarily a pie-in-the-sky ambition, noting that Netanyahu has made significant inroads with numerous countries. “Just sitting here, you see the kind of traffic – heads of states and heads of government – who come to Jerusalem. The sheer flow is quite impressive,” he said. “That gives me the feeling that the automatic majority could turn around.”
These leaders, Kapoor noted, come for a wide variety of different reasons – from something tangible to gain from ties with Israel, to understanding that the Middle East is an important part of the world necessary to understand, and that Israel can help them do that.
“These visits,” he said, “are also a reflection of the importance of this country – both diplomatically and strategically. This should not be underplayed in any way.”
When Modi comes next month, he has no intention of underplaying the Indo-Israeli relationship or Israel’s importance. He is coming to tell the Israeli people in a clear and open manner, Kapoor said, that India is a genuine and strategic partner, and that “we want to work with you.”