Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Israel, the first by an Indian Prime Minister, is loaded with geopolitical significance at many levels. Apart from being high on optics, it marks the first serious attempt at the highest level to deepen bilateral engagement with a country that evokes mixed domestic reactions. Significantly, Modi’s itinerary does not include Palestine, signalling de-hyphenation of India’s relations with the two West Asian States. However, it does not mean any dilution of New Delhi’s long-standing policy of supporting the Palestinian cause. It reflects an attempt to jettison empty symbolism and instead embrace pragmatic global politics. Since coming to power in 2014, the NDA government has reiterated on several occasions that India’s support to the Palestinian cause remains intact even as it maintains good relations with Israel. There has been a conscious effort to infuse pragmatism into India’s engagement with West Asia. Modi’s earlier visits to UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar were all standalone trips, signifying the importance of bilateral ties. The visit to Israel will be consistent with growing importance of Tel Aviv in India’s diplomatic outreach. Along with Russia and United States, Israel is one of India’s most important defence equipment suppliers. It has proved to be one of the most reliable partners India has on overall security links, including intelligence sharing. In the context of India’s aspiration to emerge as a global superpower, the visit will provide an important occasion to expand bilateral engagement with Israel.
Though trade between the two countries is modest now, there is enormous potential to expand ties in areas ranging from communication technology and solar energy to micro-irrigation and agriculture. Israel is keen on negotiating a free trade agreement with India, a prospect that can have a far-reaching impact in future. Since defence equipment manufacturing is an important component of NDA’s ‘Make in India’ programme, the two countries can explore joint development of medium-range surface-to-air missiles, which can be manufactured in India. India has been importing surface-to-air missile systems, unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance, radars and anti-tank missiles. Over the last five years, defence trade between India and Israel has averaged more than $1billion annually. In the past, India’s West Asia policy was influenced by false equivalence between Israel and Palestine and a doctrine shaped by Cold War dynamics. The time has now come to shed the Ostrich approach and fashion the policy in tune with the rising global profile of India and strictly adhere to the national interest. Modi’s visit, scheduled for July, marks the 25th anniversary of full diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was in Tel Aviv last week to prepare the ground for PM’s historic visit.