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What's Behind Modi's Fascination For Israel?

Raman Swamy

Gone are the days when India’s foreign policy was anchored to certain stated principles like Panchsheel, non-alignment and anti-colonialism.   Today it is dictated by strategic objectives, trade advantages and security concerns.

This is the reason why the era of consistency has given way to an age of new-found friendships, sudden tilts and flexible military alliances and trade agreements.  

Such a flexible approach is by its very nature subject to rapid changes depending on which way the world is currently veering and which way the wind is blowing. 

For policy framers, this calls for constant reviews and SWOT analyses, thereby rendering policy initiatives more experimental and exploratory than ever before in the past seven decades.

For foreign policy pundits and think tanks not privy to the latest official evaluations and intelligence inputs, it has become well-nigh impossible to identify the triggers for the latest policy shift or change in stance towards one nation or the other, one region vis-a-vis the next. 

In any case the global scenario is presently in so much of a flux that even a back-of-the-envelope calculation of which country is with which big-power bloc and what India stands to gain or lose by snubbing some and reaching out to others is a geo-strategic gamble in ever-changing assumptions.  

There are not even clearly recognizable big-power blocs anymore --  for instance, after the US elections even the NATO allies are not sure who their allies are and after Brexit the European Union is re-examining the contours of its own future.

Hence, any attempt to gauge the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, trends and dangers of individual countries while formulating foreign policy has become increasingly hazardous. 

Under the Modi dispensation, there have been noticeable efforts at diplomatic and commercial out-reaches during the past three years both in the South Asia regional context and in the global arena. Starting from the breath-stopping invitation to leaders of all neighbouring countries at the very beginning of his tenure,  Prime Minister Modi has by now shaken the hands of (or in some cases hugged) virtually every head of State or Government on the planet.

However, the warmth of the initial embrace has not always been sustained, reciprocated or led to better mutual understanding, relations or deals.  Subsequent signals have not always been what may have been the initial intention or hope.   The new government soon discovered that in international relations cold calculations and hard-nosed geo-political interests count for more than just bonhomie during summit level interactions.

Even a cursory stock-taking at the present juncture of where India stands on the world stage in terms of friends and adversaries indicates a worrisome picture of deteriorating relations with perilously proximate nuclear neighbours like China, Nepal and Pakistan.

In contrast New Delhi is focused on assiduously building special relationships and strategic alliances with distant Capitals --  in particular Tel Aviv which is 4,000 km  away and Washington which is over 12, 000 km across the oceans.  

Distance does not matter in global equations.  But long-term considerations and enlightened self-interests do have relevance and value.  A state of perpetual hostility punctuated by frequent border skirmishes with Pakistan neither makes good sense nor rational strategy,  not to talk of good politics, economics and diplomacy.   

On the other hand, Prime Minister Modi’s evidently eager urge to embrace Israel appears even more inexplicable.  His upcoming visit to Tel Aviv is being hyped as a historic harbinger of even greater and warmer bilateral ties between two countries who do not have, and have never really had, any common goals or grounds to court each other beyond maintaining normal civilized diplomatic contact.   On the contrary India has consistently been on the side of the Palestinian people in the festering territorial dispute that appears insoluble even after seven decades of strife, suffering, brutal war and terrorism.  

But, times have changed – or at least the government in New Delhi has.  Today, closer than ever relations with the Israelis is a higher priority for the Modi regime than many other geo-political considerations, including the earlier solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Reports indicate that not very many Israeli citizens are paying much attention to the fact that Indian Prime Minister will be visiting Israel next week. The few who are aware, must be wondering why their own Prime Minister is calling Mr Modi a “haver” – which is the Hebrew word for describing someone who is more than just a ‘friend’ -  a friend who understands, who has sympathy, empathy and special rapport. 

India is not a player in the Middle East, apart from being a big importer of Saudi and Iranian oil, and Israel in certainly not one in the subcontinent. India’s trade with Israel is not only negligible, it’s been shrinking. The sum total of Indian investments in Israel are the equivalent of a single moderately sized fundraising round by a start-up. Modi has no Jewish voters back at home to impress with a photo op with Bibi Netanyahu.

Yet Modi is not only spending two days in Israel, he isn’t troubling himself to pay a symbolic side trip on the Palestinian Authority in a nod to diplomatic balance. Many in India are also similarly wondering why.

Jul 04, 2017


Raman Swamy raman.swamy@gmail.com

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