India has ‘matured,’ so ties with Israel are flowering, envoy says
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InterviewResolutions denying the Jewish people’s link to Jerusalem 'make no sense'

India has ‘matured,’ so ties with Israel are flowering, envoy says

Ahead of first-ever visit by an Indian PM, Ambassador Kapoor says New Delhi no longer 'hyphenates' its relationships with Jerusalem and Ramallah

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Indian Ambassador to Israel Pavan Kapoor in his Tel Aviv office (Courtesy Indian Embassy Tel Aviv)
Indian Ambassador to Israel Pavan Kapoor in his Tel Aviv office (Courtesy Indian Embassy Tel Aviv)

India has matured politically and is now able to separate its increasingly warm relations with Israel from its traditional support for the Palestinian cause, the country’s ambassador to Israel said.

Ahead of the first-ever visit to Israel by an Indian prime minister this week, Ambassador Pavan Kapoor hailed the growing ties between New Delhi and Jerusalem in a wide range of areas, including politically, but stopped short of promising that India would drastically change its voting pattern in international organizations to Israel’s favor.

“It’s our sense of confidence that we can deal with both relationships independently and on their own merits. We don’t see the need to hyphenate them,” Kapoor said in a recent interview, referring to India’s friendship with both the Israelis and Palestinians.

“We will continue to work with the Palestinians because we do support their cause. But at the same time we want to keep our relations with Israel independent of their relationship with Palestine.”

Supporters shower flower petals on opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and India's next prime minister Narendra Modi as he arrives at the party headquarters in New Delhi, India, Saturday, May 17, 2014. (Photo credit: AP)
Supporters shower flower petals on opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and India’s next prime minister Narendra Modi as he arrives at the party headquarters in New Delhi, India, May 17, 2014. (AP)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due in Israel Tuesday for a three-day visit celebrating 25 years since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations. His itinerary includes stops in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, where he is set to meet top Israeli officials and hold a rally for Indians living in the country. He will not, however, travel to the Palestinian territories to meet with officials from the Palestinian Authority, which is highly unusual for foreign dignitaries coming to the region, especially those with close ties to the Arab world.

“It is worthy of note that Modi’s trip to Israel is not planned to be ‘balanced’ with a visit to the Palestinian Authority, indicating that India has freed its relations with Israel from its historical commitment to the Palestinian issue,” political science professor Efraim Inbar wrote in a paper for the BESA Center for Strategic Studies.

According to Kapoor, Modi’s decision to skip Ramallah emanates from political confidence.

“He’s confident and comfortable enough to realize that these are two different relationships, and we don’t have to hyphenate them,” he told The Times of Israel in his spacious office at India’s beachfront Tel Aviv embassy.

India — a country of more than 1.25 billion people, among whom is the world’s second-largest Muslim population — was the first non-Arab state to recognize Palestine in 1988. Modi hosted PA President Mahmoud Abbas recently in New Delhi.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, speaks with media during a joint press conference with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, Monday, May 23, 2016. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, speaks with the media during a joint press conference with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, on May 23, 2016. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

“He’s got a great degree of political confidence,” Kapoor said of Modi. “He’s been voted in with a massive majority. After many decades of coalition governments, he’s there now with a very strong majority. And we as a nation have matured. That’s what’s giving him the political confidence to take bolder decisions.”

Most Indians have always had very warm feelings for the Jewish people and the State of Israel, the ambassador said. But the country’s government used to be careful in its dealings with Jerusalem so as not to disturb its close ties with the Arab world.

“Seven million Indians live and work in the Middle East. That’s a substantial number of people. The importance of that is not to be undermined,” Kapoor said. “But we are at a state where we reached the political maturity where we can tell the Arab world that, yes, we will continue to work with Israel because it’s in our interest and on its merit, and we will still continue to support the Palestinian cause because we believe in that.”

The growing friendship between India and Israel has many facets, including New Delhi’s occasional abstention on Palestinian-sponsored resolutions at various bodies such as the UN.

“Indeed, India has modified its voting pattern at international organizations by refraining to join the automatic majority against Israel,” Inbar noted.

However, Jerusalem should not expect New Delhi to reject every resolution that Israel takes issue with, Kapoor cautioned.

Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (C) waves as he walks with officials after arriving at Palam Air Force Station in New Delhi on May 14, 2017. AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH)
Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center, waves as he walks with officials after arriving at Palam Air Force Station in New Delhi on May 14, 2017. (AFP/Prakash Singh)

As a leading member of the pro-Palestinian Non-Aligned Movement, India used to vote in blocs, he explained. “We have consciously for some time now tried to bring ourselves out of that, and say, we’re going to vote for resolutions on their merits specifically.” And yet, he added, Modi’s government will back any initiative it deems worthy of support, whether Israel likes it it or not.

“Don’t get me wrong: We are fully supportive of the Palestinian cause. So we will continue to [vote in their favor whenever] we think their resolution reflects that cause and is in line with our principled support for them,” Kapoor said. “But where we feel resolutions are being unfair to Israel and are pushing them in a direction which doesn’t make sense, then we will vote differently.”

Resolutions denying the Jewish people’s link to Jerusalem, for instance, “make no sense” and would not garner Indian support, he continued.

However, India’s voting pattern at the UN “should not be seen as a measure of friendship,” he said. “So it’s difficult to say or predict which way we will vote… We will vote on a resolution based on its merit and not based on friendship.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris on November 30, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, during the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris, on November 30, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

In Jerusalem, where Modi will stay at the King David Hotel, he is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, and to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center. He is also set to visit the Indian World War I Cemetery in Haifa.

Another highlight of his three-day trip will be a large rally addressing members of Israel’s Indian community at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, expected to draw 4,000 people. “He wants to talk to them and tell them what role they can play to improve India-Israel relations,” Kapoor said.

About 12,000 non-Jewish Indian nationals currently live and work in Israel, as well as some 80,000 Israeli Jews with at least one parent of Indian origin. Only 5,000 Jews remain in India today.

But Modi’s trip also has a very strong economic aspect, Kapoor stressed. Bilateral trade today reaches $5 billion, one-fifth of which is in Israeli defense exports. In 1992, when diplomatic ties were established, bilateral trade was at about $200 million. “We’ve come a long way since then, and it didn’t happen overnight,” Kapoor said.

An Indian sailor stands guard aboard the INS Trishul, docked in the Haifa port for a visit, on May 10, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
An Indian sailor stands guard aboard the INS Trishul, docked in the Haifa port for a visit, on May 10, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Much is being made of strong Indo-Israeli military ties, but Modi is interested in fostering ties with the “whole development gamut,” the ambassador noted. “We’re focusing on agriculture, water, science and technology. These are the areas where we are really trying to work with Israel. And we can learn so much from Israel… There is this amazing, seamless interface between industry, government and academia in Israel, and that’s something we can learn a lot from.”

This week’s official visit is Modi’s first trip to Israel as prime minister, but not his first overall. He was here in 2006 as chief minister of Gujarat, a state in Western India with a population of about 60 million.

“He was certainly very impressed by what he saw even then,” said Kapoor, who knows the prime minister personally. “I am waiting to see what he says when he comes now.”

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