India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has arrived in Israel on a historic three-day visit – the first by an Indian prime minister. The visit coincides with the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1992.
India recognised Israel in 1950 nearly two years after it declared independence, but it took New Delhi 67 years to establish diplomatic ties with the Middle Eastern nation.
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Earlier on the day of the meeting, Indian English language daily The Times of India published a joint editorial written by Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu highlighting the collaborations between the two countries.
“India and Israel are walking hand in hand into the future as partners,” the editorial said.
Ties between the two nations have become more “visible” since Modi became prime minister in 2014 and Israeli ambassador to India Daniel Carmon said the “landmark” visit will focus on issues of economic development, innovation, agriculture, water and establishing a better connection between the people of the two countries, as well as defence.
Modi is set to hold talks with Netanyahu, whom he calls his friend and is likely to address the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) July 3, 2017
On the agenda
Modi’s trip comes weeks after India approved a defence deal with Israel worth $2bn.
The Indian prime minister has been pushing for defence cooperation with Israel, which has agreed to collaborate and support his “Make in India” initiative. The trip will focus on “Expanding business and investment collaboration on the ground. In addition, I hope to get insights into Israel’s accomplishments in technology and innovation through on-site visits,” Modi wrote on his Facebook page.
“We already have quite a significant collaboration in defence technology and cybersecurity, but now we need to go to new areas,” Vijay Chauthaiwale, head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) foreign policy department, told Al Jazeera.
“It may be in the areas of agriculture and water conservation, innovation and startup culture. It coincides very well with the startup action plan of Modi,” Chauthaiwale said.
PR Kumaraswamy, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, agrees that “much of the focus would be on non-political and non-security issues such as agriculture and water management”, saying that Israeli technology can help India attain food security.
Yet, India-Israel bilateral trade has grown from a mere $200m in 1992 to nearly $5bn last year.
Agriculture has emerged as one of the main areas of cooperation and Israel has helped to set up nearly 15 centres of excellence across India, which lend new technology to farmers to enhance crop production.
Apart from discussing bilateral relations with his counterpart, Modi also includes on his agenda addressing the Indian diaspora community of more than 80,000 Jews of Indian origin who reside in Israel.
“I am particularly looking forward to interacting with the large, vibrant Indian diaspora in Israel that represents an enduring link between our two peoples,” Modi wrote on his Facebook page before his arrival in Israel.
While matters of business and counterterrorism might be the focus of the trip, analysts and media in the two countries say defence deals will also be on the agenda.
A complex relationship
Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP has pushed for closer ties with Israel as opposed to previous governments, who kept the relationship more discreet.
“People [in India] were not openly admitting the relationship. You have a girlfriend but you are not ready to bring her to your family,” Kumaraswamy, the JNU professor, said.
Yet since the BJP came to power in 2014, Modi has met Netanyahu twice on previous occasions in New York and Paris.
The two countries have become closer allies for various reasons over the past 25 years and have maintained high-level military cooperation.
In the past decade, India has bought more than $10bn worth of arms from Israel, more than any other country.
Vijay Prashad, editor of the publishing house LeftWord Books, says the Congress party (which headed the previous government), for instance, was the one which initiated the normalisation of relations with Israel to forge better relations with the United States as part of a pragmatic foreign policy.
“They [Congress party] were told that the road to friendship with Washington was via Tel Aviv,” Prashad told Al Jazeera.
“The BJP perhaps has more programmatic push. They [BJP and Israel] share some ideas on anti-terrorism, identifying Islam with terrorism,” he said.
But not everyone in India thinks fondly of the deepening ties between the two countries. Activists from Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in India and pro-Palestinian voices have criticised the Modi government’s open embrace of the Israeli government.
They accuse Israel of imposing apartheid-like conditions on Palestinians and building illegal settlements on private Palestinian land in contravention of international laws.
Established in 2005, BDS is a grassroots movement calling for a boycott of Israeli goods, divestment from Israeli firms operating in occupied territories and imposition of sanctions in order to pressure the Israelis to prevent human rights abuses against Palestinians.
“Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Israel is a dramatic signpost of how far India has shifted: from support of the Palestinian struggle against occupation to total involvement and complicity with Brand Israel,” Githa Hariharan, a supporter of BDS movement in India, told Al Jazeera.
“India has, over recent years, got more and more implicated in the Israeli war machine that occupies, kills, and discriminates through apartheid policies against the Palestinians in the [occupied] West Bank and Gaza, as well as its own Arab citizens.”
Hariharan also pointed at “the striking parallels between Zionism and Hindutva”. The ideology of Hindutva, which calls for supremacy of Hindus over others, guides Modi’s BJP, which has turned a blind eye to the recent lynching of dozens of Muslims by cow vigilantes.
“At present, this link is sharp: both Zionism and Hindutva practice exclusionary politics; both believe in and aspire to states based on religious identity,” she said.
In a break from the diplomatic past, Modi is not visiting the seat of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
Kumaraswamy, author of the book India’s Israel Policy, does not believe that New Delhi is abandoning one for the other, saying the “prime minister is going to say Israel is not going to influence the Palestinian issue and that Palestinians are not going to influence India’s Israel’s policy”.
Previously, India had sympathised with the Palestinian cause and sided with the Arab nations, with which it maintains close economic ties. These include the seven million-plus Indian nationals who work in the Middle East, mainly in the Gulf countries, and send more than $30bn back home as remittances. India also imports more than 60 of its petroleum needs from the Gulf.
BJP’s Chauthaiwale reiterated that India’s stand on the Palestinian cause is not in question.
“We want to build a strong relationship with Israel at the same time as we support the Palestinian cause. And we are not shy about it,” he said.
In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom, Modi affirmed New Delhi’s support for the “two-state” solution. The Indian prime minister said that the Indian embassy would not be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, staying clear of the Netanyahu government’s claim over Jerusalem as its capital.
Yet, some remain unconvinced. Critics say the government stand vis-a-vis Palestinians is shifting. In the wake of the Israeli onslaught on Gaza in 2014, the Modi government’s response was restrained and prevented a parliamentary resolution condemning the Israeli violence.
It abstained from a vote at the UN human rights council that condemned Israel for the Gaza violence.
“All official Indian talk of Palestine and support to Palestine is shameful lip service,” Hariharan, one of the convenors of the Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, said.
“How else can we view the massive buying of arms from Israel? How else can we view India’s significant military ties with Israel…?”
Prashad from LeftWord Books agrees. “Where is the space, then, to say that Palestine is occupied?”