Years in the making, Israel-India détente picks up steam

After Friday’s historic abstention at UN vote on Gaza war, senior Foreign Ministry delegation from New Delhi visits Jerusalem

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Narenda Modi in New York City on September 28, 2014. (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Narenda Modi in New York City on September 28, 2014. (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)

The rapid rapprochement between Israel and India received a major boost Tuesday when a senior Foreign Ministry delegation visited Jerusalem, just days after New Delhi dramatically changed its traditional voting pattern at the United Nations in Israel’s favor.

Headed by Secretary (East) Anil Wadhwa, who holds the top bureaucratic position in the ministry, the group of Indian diplomats is in Israel for a “strategical dialogue” on various issues.

The trip is the newest sign of flowering ties between the countries in both defense and diplomacy, which will soon culminate in the first ever visit by an sitting Indian head of state to Israel.

“This dialogue expresses the special relationship that developed” between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement this week. “At the heart of the dialogue stand a number of bilateral topics, with an emphasis on diplomatic, economic and development issues.”

Wadhwa and Dore Gold, who heads Israel’s Foreign Ministry, were set to discuss ways to remove “economic barriers” and improve tourism, and the establishment of a “Center of Excellence in Agriculture,” among other subjects, according to the statement.

During the meeting, Gold was expected to thank India for its recent pro-Israel moves in international forums.

On Friday, India had abstained in a vote on a UN Human Rights Council resolution that backed a report critical of Israel’s behavior during last summer’s Gaza war.

The Palestinians were “shocked” at India’s move, said the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to India, Adnan Abu Alhaija. “The Palestinian people and leaders were very happy with the UN resolution, but the voting of India has broken our happiness.”

Although New Delhi emphasized that its vote did not signal any change in its policy of support for the Palestinian cause, India’s abstention was celebrated in Israel as a remarkable diplomatic achievement.

India was one of five countries that abstained, while 41 countries — including staunch allies of Israel such as Germany, Britain and the Netherlands — voted in favor of the resolution. Only the United States opposed.

As a longstanding member of the Non-Aligned movement, which always votes with the Palestinians and against Israel, India’s abstention last Friday, which followed a telephone conversation between Netanyahu and Modi, indeed signaled a historic change.

However, it was not the first time that New Delhi abstained in a UN vote that touched on the Israeli-Palestinian question.

On June 1, India also abstained in a vote on whether to grant the Palestinian Return Center “consultative status” at the UN Economic and Social Council’s NGO committee. (Israel, claiming PRC was linked to Hamas, objected, as did the US and Uruguay.)

“The Israeli-India relationship has been growing steadily for many years now. Since the coming into power of the government headed by Narenda Modi there is a visible turn for the better, a moving from improvement to an upgrade,” said Mark Sofer, a deputy director-general at Israel’s foreign ministry and a former ambassador to India. “But there’s so much more that the two countries can and will do together for the benefit of the Israeli and Indian peoples.”

Modi, who is expected in Israel later this year in what would be a historic first visit of an Indian prime minister, has accelerated the rapprochement with Jerusalem. While strong defense and business ties existed before he came to power in April 2014, he made the relationship much more visible.

Foreign Minister Shrimati Sushma Swaraj is also due to visit Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan later this year. In February, Moshe Ya’alon became the first sitting Israeli defense minister to visit India.

“Much credit for this process belongs to the two prime ministers and our embassy in India,” an Israeli official said. “We’re indeed witnessing a dramatic change. It shows how India starts seeing itself in a different light — as a world power in the making, which is becoming stronger economically but also deals with the threat of global terrorism. It also shows how they’re distancing themselves from the Non-Aligned Movement and its automatic support for the Palestinian cause. They’re currently in a process of reassessment.”

When Netanyahu was reelected in April, Modi congratulated him with two tweets — in English and Hebrew — and was one of the few world leaders to call the Israeli leader “my friend Bibi.”

Netanyahu takes great pride in what he calls a “longstanding friendship.” During a recent speech in Herzliya, the prime minister said that he called Modi to thank him for cooperating on rescue missions for Israelis after the earthquake in Nepal. “[Modi] said, ‘No, I want to thank you. The partnership between Israel and India is a model for brotherhood among the nations,’” Netanyahu said.

But despite the relatively rapid pace, the normalization of ties does not come without opposition in India — a country home to more than 10 percent of the world’s Muslim population.

‘Israel is our ally country but we have never let down the Palestinian cause’

India’s main opposition party JD(U) slammed the government for Friday’s abstention at the Human Rights Council, arguing that it could hurt New Delhi’s relations with the Arab world.

“The decision is against the established policy of our nation and if India continues to follow the same track, no west Asian nation will stand with us in future,” party leader K. C. Tyagi said in a statement. “If 40-41 countries can support Palestine stand against Israel, the party does not understand why the central government chose to go against its tradition,” he continued, adding that hundreds of innocents lost their lives due to the “war crime perpetrated by Israel.”

In response, the Foreign Ministry in New Delhi asserted that there is “no change in India’s longstanding position on support to the Palestinian cause.” Rather, the country abstained because the resolution on the Gaza war made reference to the International Criminal Court, of which India is not a member, ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said.

“In the past also, whenever there has been a Human Rights Council resolution which referred directly to the ICC, as had happened in the cases of Syria and North Korea, our general approach had been to abstain,” Swarup declared. “It was in keeping with this principle that India decided to abstain on this particular resolution.”

However, it has been pointed out that India actually did support several UN resolutions that mention the court in The Hague.

“The ICC excuse is pretty weak,” a senior Israeli official with intimate knowledge of India said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But they have to make such statements. They can’t just jump toward major changes like this without taking into consideration that India has a significant Muslim population, even if it’s not particularly hostile to Israel.”

Indeed, ties between Israel and India seem set to continue to grow and even become more public, but the political establishment in New Delhi is still going to some lengths to stress its rapprochement with Jerusalem doesn’t come at the expense of the country’s support for the Palestinians.

“To say that we are tilted towards Israel or we are making any changes in our policy is wrong,” Foreign Minister Swaraj said a few weeks ago. India’s foreign policy has “not undergone any change” regarding Palestine, she asserted in a media briefing marking one year since the government took power. “Israel is our ally country but we have never let down the Palestinian cause. We support the Palestinian cause and will continue.”

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