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Why India's Narendra Modi Can Afford to Ignore the Palestinians

Indian PM Modi's Israel visit doesn't mean he turned his back on the Palestinian cause, but the Cold War is over and he has a billion people to feed

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi spins cotton on a wheel during his visit to Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Amit Dave TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Narendra Modi, spinning cotton at an ashram: He isn't indifferent to the Palestinian plight, but he has a billion people to feed and clothe.Credit: Amit Dave, Reuters
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Israel has long complained that India treats it like a mistress: glad to partake of its defense and technology charms, but a little embarrassed about the whole thing and unwilling to make the relationship too public.

With Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel starting on Tuesday – the first ever by a sitting Indian prime minister – it will be like the two countries arriving hand in hand to opening night of the opera season, lit by a barrage of flashing cameras.

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Perhaps even more strikingly, Modi’s visit will not include a stopover in Ramallah as most world leaders visiting Israel do, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj last year.

India hasn’t abandoned the Palestinian cause, as Modi’s apparent snub would suggest. But it does signal a new strategy of “de-hyphenating” the Israeli-Palestinian issue. That can only leave the Palestinians worse off.

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Whipping boy of the West

Anyone trying to fathom the new, high-profile friendship between Israel and India should look to China, with which Israel is also enjoying warming ties.

Both India and China were hostile toward Israel during the Cold War era. They took up the Palestinian cause as part and parcel of their fight against Western dominance.

With the collapse of the communist bloc, both established relations with Israel in 1992, but deeper ties only came later, based on Israel’s proven defense capabilities both in the battlefield and in technology. More recently, Israeli prowess in civilian technology has come to the fore as India and China focus on economic development and feeding their increasingly wealthy populations.

U.S. concerns soon put a damper on Israel's defense deals with China, but with India, they have been at the forefront.

The Indian army has long admired Israel; and Israel came to India’s aid as far back as the early 1960s, with arms and advice; but the defense ties didn’t really come to life until the late 1990s. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, India wanted to wean itself from Russian arms imports and upgrade its military, especially after its troops performed poorly in a short war with Pakistan at the turn of the century.

Israel is not only an excellent source of advanced technology in missiles, drones and surveillance gear: it has been more willing than other suppliers to share know-how and form joint ventures with Indian companies. Modi is determined not only to upgrade India’s military but wants to build a world-class defense industry. Israel Aerospace Industries alone has three joint ventures in India, including one for the flagship Barack 8 air defense system.

Today, Israel is believed to be exporting about $1 billion a year in arms to India. That would make it Israel’s biggest defense market.

Already India’s third-largest arms supplier after Russia and the United States, Israel's share is destined to grow after the Aerospace Industries and Rafael won a $2 billion contract in April for surface-to-air missiles, the biggest ever won by an Israeli defense company.

Now Modi, a pro-business politician keen on developing the Indian economy, is expected to sign agreements with Israel covering innovation, development, science and technology and space. In addition, the Uttar Pradesh government is slated to sign deals to clean part of the river Ganges and launch a $40 million industrial research and development fund.

Palestinians who?

Even Israel’s success in spawning startup companies is of interest to India. Because of their subcontracting services to big U.S. companies, India’s tech sector is under threat from Trump’s crackdown on visas. India needs to be building its own Startup Nation.

Like China, India is part of Israel’s drive to diversify its business and political ties from the U.S. and Europe.

In the process, Israel has learned that high-tech can be a diplomatic asset too, not just a business one.

Unfortunately for the Palestinians, the emerging political calculi of India (and China) have marginalized them.

While access to Israeli defense and civilian technology has become a key factor for the two countries, the Palestinians’ status as the cause celebre of the Middle East has declined in the wake of the Arab Spring.

The Arab world is preoccupied with struggle with Islamic State and other domestic threats. Meanwhile, record low prices for oil play into the hands of big importers of Middle East oil like India and China, who know their suppliers can’t be choosy about their customers’ politics.

In all events, neither India nor China is a major political player in the region. New Delhi isn’t going to lead an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, send troops to Syria or confront Iran as the U.S. does. Its stance on these issues has no practical effect, which gives it the freedom to be friends with everyone. Modi himself visited arch-enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran last year, and now he is landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Back in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru – the first Indian prime minister – was strongly anti-partition, of the subcontinent or Palestine either, though he believed the Jews had a "holy right" to the land. Today, prime minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is strongly identified with Hindu nationalism: its voters are less concerned about pushback from the country’s 180 million-strong Muslim minority arising from warmer relations with Israel, which has traditionally been factored into New Delhi’s attitude toward Israel.

Actually, a warm spot

Moreover, the BJP has been traditionally pro-Israel (Modi himself visited in 2006). BJP leaders look to Israel’s successes in overcoming its enemies and its lack of natural resources as a model and may even have a soft spot for its increasingly nationalist politics. As Nitin Gadkari, a former party leader and current cabinet minister, explains it: “We need a similar nationalist, self-reliant, development-oriented and innovation-propelled approach in solving India’s problems.”

On paper, India remains friendly to the Palestinians and to Mahmoud Abbas, who New Delhi calls the "president of Palestine", not of the Palestinian Authority. However, his visit to India in May was low-key and the declaration India made in support of a two-state solution notably failed to mention East Jerusalem as Palestine’s future capital. In the last two years, in votes on anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council, India has abstained.

The big risk for Israel in the budding friendship is Indian democracy.

Unlike China, where decisions are made by the leadership in Beijing, Indian politicians are answerable to voters and power shifts from one party to another. In the event of another bloody war with Hezbollah or Hamas, or Israeli arms sales to China, which India sees as a strategic rival, Modi could find Israel to be a problem. A government led by the rival Congress Party would in general be less friendly.

Those concerns could explain why the agreements the two sides are due to approve this week include ways of strengthening people-to-people contact through tourism and other means. For all the Israel-admiration that the elite of army officers and BJP politicians show, for most Indians, the Jewish state is a distant country of which they know little about. Israel hopes to slowly change that.

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