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India Wants an Affair When It Comes to Israel, Not a Serious Relationship

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Olga Beach, October 9, 2017.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Olga Beach, October 9, 2017.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

It’s hard to escape the historical parallels between the 70th anniversary celebrations of the UN vote that partitioned British Mandatory Palestine on November 29, 1947, and the General Assembly’s vote against the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Although the circumstances are different, there is great similarity between these two votes, at least as far as India’s voting against Israel is concerned.

The resolution riled supporters of India’s ruling party and disappointed Israeli politicians. The “affair” between the two countries has been expanding beyond the significant level of military trade. It has included many charmed moments in recent years, such as exchanges of good wishes on Twitter between the countries’ representatives, cooperation in areas like agriculture and water and a first visit to Israel by an Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. The common security and economic interests the countries share were vital elements in forging this love affair, which is expected to continue with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to New Delhi in a few weeks.

However, if one looks at these ties through India’s voting record at the UN, the pattern over time shows an embrace of the Palestinian narrative, along with a clear anti-Israel stance. The blossoming of the love affair has brought about but a small change, if any, to this trend. This was evident in India’s abstention on a resolution calling to condemn Israel following a UN report on the 2014 Gaza war and an abstention on a UNESCO resolution that defined Israel as “an occupying force in Jerusalem.” Last month, India supported the UN resolution condemning U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The optimism and enthusiasm which swept Israeli and Indian media prior to that vote seemed a bit superficial. There is talk of a new era in India-Israel relations, but the complexity facing India and its relations with the Arab and Muslim world has never been accurately presented in Israel. This particularly applies to the complicated relations between the current administration and the Muslim community within India itself.

Ignoring key aspects of the strategic realities in India has led Israelis to miss the essence of the change that has taken place: a move away from uncompromising support of the Palestinian side to a more balanced view. After every step that is perceived as pro-Israeli, the Indian foreign ministry takes care to make a counterbalanced move, such as inviting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a visit.

There are several explanations for India’s latest vote against Israel: First, a switch to a more balanced diplomatic and economic policy requires careful treading. India has interests in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and other countries which oppose Israel’s policies (at least in public forums such as the UN). Thus, American threats to “take names” of countries that reject the U.S. stance on Jerusalem at the UN were misplaced – India’s vote was not an act of defiance against the senior superpower, but an attempt to maintain its political independence.

Another explanation is that India is attempting to curb friction between the Modi government and the Indian Muslim community in light of border clashes with Pakistan and following several controversial appointments of senior Hindu nationalists. Moreover, a serious battle was required in Modi’s home state of Gujarat to secure a victory for his party in local elections, in which it lost 16 seats. The way India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj responded to congratulations from a Muslim politician contained overt hints that a deal had probably been made and that there was some expectation for changes.

But even in an affair, stormy emotions may give way to more rational thought. India’s intention of expanding its geopolitical power in the coming years comes with a growing desire to present a clear vision with regard to controversial issues. Serving as a mediator in various conflicts is one way of achieving prestige and standing, and it is clear that India is intent on following this path. Israel’s eagerness to turn the affair into a committed relationship obliges it to recognize deep new undercurrents within the Indian establishment. As in a romantic novel, deliberations and doubts are some of the things Modi’s government is contending with courageously.

The changing geopolitical map and the crystallization of a covert and overt Saudi-American-Israeli axis pose some challenges to decision-makers in New Delhi. Their foreign policy with regard to the Palestinian question is one part of this debate. It’s hard to predict whether India will choose to accelerate strengthening its ties with Israel and adopt a more favorable policy, such as that of Israel with the U.S. However, walking hand in hand toward the sunset is not enough to provide the security and trust necessary for this to happen.

The writer is an expert on Indian politics and a Ph.D. candidate at Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Middle East Studies. Her specialty is India’s relations with Persian Gulf countries.