by Dr Naazir Mahmood

With the conclusion of the four-day visit by the Israeli prime minister to India, Modi is looking happier. Both the countries signed over a dozen agreements including some about cyber security, oil, and gas. But the most disturbing to the region is the talk about reviving the missile agreement that had been canceled by the Indian government.

During the past three years of the Modi government, the bonhomie between India and Israel has been on the rise and both the countries have enhanced their cooperation in various sectors including defence.

One example of this defence cooperation is the provision of drone technology to India enabling it to make use of the latest gadgets. The recent visit by Netanyahu attracted substantial coverage from the Indian and international media but the protests in several Indian cities against the visit hardly got any attention. In addition to Delhi, protesters came out in many cities across India — especially in Kashmir — to condemn Modi’s hobnobbing with Netanyahu. The protesters were particularly voicing their concerns against the Israeli atrocities on Palestinians. The recent American decision to shift its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem has angered Muslims around the world and the Indian Muslims are no exception.

One major outcome of the visit was the talk about reviving the cancelled agreement for purchasing anti-tank missiles from Israel; India had cancelled the agreements prior to the visit.

Luckily, the Muslims were not alone in these protests. Most peace-loving and secular forces around the world have supported Palestinians. The Indian Communist leaders were vocal in their condemnation of the visit by Netanyahu. In their statements, they highlighted the Israeli disregard for the UN resolutions and its continued expansion into the Palestinian territories. These protests put considerable pressure on Modi during the visit.

In defence relations, India is receiving the latest drone technology called Heron UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) System. Though such remote controlled systems have been in use for half a century now, the past 15 years have seen tremendous development in this field. Israel has been at the forefront of this technology and has virtually paralysed the Palestinians fighting against Israel to protect their lands. Now, India is trying to do the same by using the drone technology against uprisings in many Indian states. That is one of the reasons why the protesters against the Netanyahu visit were carrying placards and banners with slogans declaring both Modi and Netanyahu as murderers.

Though Israel has some similarities with Pakistan too — such as both were created in the name of religion, both claim to be ideological states, and both have been unable to have friendly relations with their neighbouring countries — the commonalities between India and Israel have become more pronounced lately. India and Israel have been able to establish a well-functioning democratic system, at least in terms of regular elections and civilian supremacy. In both countries the armed forces do not challenge the decisions made by the civilian leadership, neither do they try to topple governments at national or sub-national levels.

An unenviable similarity between India and Israel is the fact that both have illegally occupied vast tracts of land. Both have faced prolonged resistance from the people living in their occupied territories; and both have fought at least three wars with their neighbours during the past 70 years. The ruthless uses of force by India and Israel have not yielded any positive results, neither have they been able to crush the resistance against them.

It needs to be kept in mind that the relations between India and Israel have not warmed only recently by Modi. After the collapse of the USSR, during the past 25 years bilateral relations have gradually improved. From 1950 to 1990, the 40-year period was an era of cold relation between India and Israel. One reason for this distance was the Soviet help and support to India and Palestine, and the Soviet antipathy towards Israel. That’s why — from Nehru to Indira and Rajiv Gandhi — almost all prime ministers of India kept a distance from Israel.

The situation changed in the 1990s and the BJP leaders, especially Atal Bihari Bajpai, played an important role in bringing India closer to Israel. Narendra Modi has been successful in taking this cozying-up to new heights. Modi and Netanyahu asserted their personal friendship by calling each other with their first names: Modi called his counterpart as ‘my friend BB’ who reciprocated by using ‘Narendra’ to display friendly relations. During the past 25 years, better relations with Israel have not prevented India in its own decisions. India has not sided with Israel in its every wrong step, just as we have been doing in Pakistan with our friends.

India has not compromised its own interests in the name of friendship. In international relations, responsible governments do keep their interests supreme and do not allow their friendship or animosity with a country to influence all their decisions. If we compare this with Pakistan, it is evident that other countries have been taking advantage of Pakistani rulers’ overenthusiastic willingness to proffer their land and resources. Be it America, China, or Saudi Arabia, all have been treating Pakistan as their factotum. Whereas India, we must admit, has not allowed others to safeguard their interest at the cost of India.

One recent demonstration of this Indian sagacity was in the United Nations when India voted in favour of Palestinians on the issue of Jerusalem. Then India also suddenly cancelled 0.5b dollars’ worth of defence agreement. Though Modi was the first ever Indian PM to visit Israel, on some important issues he has kept the traditional Indian foreign policy intact. During the recent Netanyahu visit to India, Modi has promoted his ‘Make in India’ programme by inviting Israeli arms-manufacturing companies to enter India for enhanced investment and trade. India has already become a leading purchaser of Israeli arms and weapons.

Since arms-related agreement are signed by governments, they are mostly concluded at the official level but the cooperation in other sectors takes its time; both countries have a bilateral trade amounting to hardly five billion dollars, which is now likely to increase. One reason for the low volume is reported to be the dissimilar nature of trade practices. Most Israeli businesspeople and industrialists are used to American business attitudes that facilitate quick sales deals. In India the traditional bureaucracy and red tape hamper quick progress and that is what Modi is trying to change.

Another aspect is the wide difference in the magnitude of Indian and Israeli markets. India has a population of 1.35b whereas as Israel is hardly eight million; and this affects the volume of bilateral trade. During the visit, Netanyahu expressed his disappointment at the Indian decision of not supporting Israel in the UN, but he also highlighted that the decision had not affected the prospects of better relations. India has simply communicated that it is not with Israel in all its follies, and by doing so India has shown that just for the friendship it is not ready to throw its weight against the tide, neither is it ready to convert old friends into foes.

One major outcome of the visit was the talk about reviving the cancelled agreement for purchasing anti-tank missiles from Israel; India had cancelled the agreements prior to the visit. This missile system is to be installed at the aircraft carrier still under construction. In 2017, India had concluded two billion dollars’ worth of agreements under which Israel is to supply medium-range surface-to-air missiles, launchers, and communication technology to India. Both the countries have also made some progress regarding free trade, and the next step is the upcoming visit of a big Indian trade delegation to Israel where it will push forward the trade agreements.

In addition to India, some other Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, are also improving their relations with Israel. In the changed scenario, Pakistan should also reconsider its position towards Israel. We should condemn Israeli atrocities against Palestinians — as we do against India in Kashmir — but that should not hobble us in establishing better relations with both India and Israel.