India careful to forge closer ties with Israel

India careful to forge closer ties with Israel
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
PHOTO: Reuters

India has traditionally supported the Palestinian cause until last week when it abstained from voting on a United Nations resolution condemning Israel for last year's Gaza offensive.

Experts saw this as yet another sign that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen to forge closer relations with Israel. Mr Modi is set to visit Israel later this year.

Last Friday, 41 countries supported the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, with only the United States voting against it. India was among five countries that abstained. More than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed over 50 days of fighting in July and August last year.

The External Affairs Ministry denied any change in India's policy.

"There is no change in India's longstanding position on support for the Palestinian cause," said ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup.

ndia's abstention, he said, was a technicality as the resolution had a reference to the International Criminal Court, an institution that India does not recognise.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is set to visit Israel, Palestine and Jordan although the dates have not been fixed. Her trip to Israel is expected to pave the way for a visit by Mr Modi, the first by an Indian prime minister.

This has led some analysts to say that India's vote abstention is aimed at ensuring a successful visit by Mr Modi. "I think it is a gesture to the Israelis ahead of the Prime Minister's visit. It is a tactical move... rather than a policy shift," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. "With Israel, it is a growing relationship, while the relationship with Palestine is a stagnant one."

He added: "We have not played any major role in the Palestine-Israel issue... Also, after (Yasser) Arafat, there has not been a Palestinian leader who has demonstrated proximity to India."

India has balanced its support for Palestine, which includes building its embassy in Delhi, with a growing economic and defence relationship with Israel.

Past governments have supported close ties with Israel, but preferred to keep the ties, particularly security cooperation, under wraps because of political fear of hurting minority sentiments and upsetting ties with the Arab world.

After coming into power last year, Mr Modi met his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. It was then announced that he would become the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, with the dates yet to be finalised.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Israel last November, while Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon was in India in February.

"The direction that the Modi government wants to take is very clear... They are ready to engage with Israel much more, particularly in defence," said Professor A.K. Ramakrishnan at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "This (abstention) is a shift because we have always supported the Palestinian cause (in the UN), in spite of close relations with Israel."

Said Mr G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian diplomat: "Israel was a mistress with whom the relationship had to be hidden. That is no longer the case."

Trade between India and Israel reached US$4.4 billion (S$6 billion) in 2013 from US$200 million in 1992. Both decided this year to resume talks on a free trade agreement. Israel remains an important defence partner as India seeks to modernise its military in the face of an aggressive China.

During Mr Yaalon's visit, a joint venture to develop and manufacture advanced missile systems was finalised between India's Kalyani Group and Israel's Rafael Advanced Defence Systems.

Mr Modi's close ties with Israel go back to when he was chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014. Israel was a key partner and helped facilitate Gujarat's economic growth.


This article was first published on July 07, 2015.
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