The Axis Of ‘Good’? Modi’s Historic Visit To Tel Aviv Redefines Strategic U.S.-India-Israel Ties

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his arrival in Tel Aviv July 4, the first visit ever by an Indian head of government. (Photo: MEA)

After a very successful meeting with President Donald Trump, June 26, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi scored a second victory with his historic visit to Israel, the first ever by an Indian head-of-government to Tel Aviv, and the first by any senior Indian official to the region that did not include other countries in the Middle East.

What stood out most was the virtual silence of the many and long-time Arab friends India has cultivated over decades. This despite  Modi skipping a visit to neighboring West Bank and New Delhi’s hitherto staunch Palestinian friends. The India-Israel joint statement also carefully avoided the mention of two-state solution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian issue.

The Israel visit garnered a Joint Statement that spelled out a “strategic partnership” between the two countries with a vow to fight terrorism, plus a slew of agreements on space, water management/conservation, and agricultural cooperation.

The Israel visit has much wider ramifications stretching to the far east and the Indian Ocean. The successful bilateral meetings in Tel Aviv and Washington bolster New Delhi, escalating China’s growing wariness about India’s closer military alignment with Washington and Japan. (China registered its unhappiness by upping the ante on the Bhutanese border which it considers a vassal of India, consequently facing off with Indian troops.) Beijing is also clear that it wants India to remain bogged down on the border with Pakistan, while further warming its relationship with Islamabad.

Marriage Made In Heaven

All these permutations of the ‘Great Game’ being played in Asia, have a direct link to what transpired in the last two weeks with Modi’s visit to Washington and Tel Aviv.

In Washington, President Trump said he had made good on his promise to be a “true friend” of India once in the White House. The two leaders promised even closer defense and counter-terrorism ties; Washington called out Pakistan as a ‘haven’ and designated a Kashmiri militant as a terrorist.

In Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the unrealized potential of the bilateral relationship when he said,  “Because this is the cooperation, it is a marriage really made in heaven but we are really implementing here on the earth.”

Simultaneously, Prime Minister Modi sent a strong message to countries in the Middle East that things have changed, when he perfunctorily dismissed any questions on the solely-Israel focus of the visit, expressing the hope that conflict in the region would be resolved using dialogue and restraint. “I’m 70 years late” coming to Israel, Modi declared while addressing Indians living in Israel. He carried that theme through his visit, impressing upon the hitherto close Middle Eastern friends of India, that a radical change was in the offing.

Spelling out the bilateral agreement, Modi said the two countries had “agreed to do much more to protect our strategic interests” and to combat rising radicalization and terrorism including in cyber-space, Indo Asian News Service reported.

The Joint Statement spelt it out unequivocally – “… strong measures should be taken against terrorists and terror organizations and all those who encourage, support and finance or provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups,” a pointed reference to Pakistan.

Red Meat For Washington

Modi’s visit to Israel, devoid of any other Arab/Middle East content, is viewed “very, very positively” by Washington, said Marvin Weinbaum, director of Pakistan Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. While the visit feeds into the Pakistan’s “conspiracy theory” about India, U.S. and Israel ganging up against it, “This is red meat for Washington, This is what we want from our partners, especially India,” Weinbaum, formerly a senior State Department official, told News India Times.

During a historic visit to Israel, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent time at the beach. Netanyahu presented this autographed photo to Modi. (Photo: Government of Israel)

Not combining a visit to any other Middle Eastern country or entity,  “shows the self-confidence India has,” said Walter Andersen, head of the South Asia program at John’s Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Analysts see the Israel visit as possibly having direct repercussions on U.S. policy toward Pakistan. There could be moves in the offing in Washington, to get Pakistan off the “non-NATO allies” list that gave Islamabad access to defense weaponry and technologies it would not otherwise have. “This step would be a low-hanging fruit instead of the stronger one (of declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism),” Weinbaum opined, as a way to push that country to cooperate further on Afghanistan. The U.S., he noted, is already putting aid to Pakistan on the chopping block.

On defense trade between India and Israel, U.S. analysts pointed out a further loosening of sensitive technologies, noting that many of these originated in the U.S. and had the U.S. imprimatur on them.

Experts differ on what they see as an overly optimistic view of U.S.-India relations. While the Indian-Israeli alliance “is viewed positively by the United States – redounding to the benefit of both countries, Washington’s deep relationship with Israel is far from being mirrored with India,” cautioned Jason Isaacson, associate executive director for policy at the American Jewish Committee. Speaking at a seminar July 4 in Tel Aviv, organized by the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies in honor of Modi’s visit, Isaacson noted significant differences in U.S. relations vis-a-vis India compared to Israel.

While the American engagement with and support for Israel extends to the national security establishment, and defense and intelligence cooperation with Tel Aviv is “robust” Isaacson said, Washington continues to have ‘lingering concerns’ vis-a-vis India within the national security establishment, particularly about the transfer of sophisticated technologies, and concerns in some quarters about upsetting the strategic balance with Pakistan, not to forget New Delhi’s relationship with Tehran, Isaacson added.

But there’s been nary a peep from Iran on Modi’s path-breaking visit to Israel. At least not yet, and most analysts attribute that to the Arab nations’ internal crises – bringing Qatar to toe the line, domestic radicalization and terrorism, taking sides in Syria, oil glut crisis, and even social and political change within the countries.

Some analysts see the relationship as driven almost entirely by economic interests. Eron Etzion, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, describes the visit as a “… Watershed in India’s fundamental grasp of global and regional realities.”

“From its longstanding non-aligned position, India is moving toward a more agile strategic posture, less dependent on traditional ways and driven by growing economic needs and capabilities,” (emphasis mine) Etzion contends. For Israel, he noted, it was “concrete and symbolic” not only in trade and economic ways, but in making Tel Aviv a “must visit” destination for emerging and other global leaders, and a sign of “weakening of Israel’s traditional enemies, i.e. Arab states.” While the Palestinians had protested their absence from Modi’s itinerary, Etzion says, “Unfortunately for the Palestinians, it appears that the new India cares more about hard new currency than old political dogmas and sympathies.”

Strategic 21st Century Partnership

In a press statement released by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Modi addressing the media and others, called it an “extra-ordinary visit.”

“In our modern journey, our paths have been different, but our belief in democratic values and economic progress has been a shared pursuit,” he said July 5, midway through his 3-day visit.

India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, briefing the media in Israel, said “this historic first-ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel solidified the enduring friendship between their peoples and raised the bilateral relationship to that of a strategic partnership,” Indo Asian News Service reported. Long known similarities were articulated by the two leaders, the strategic threats to regional peace and stability; first-hand experience of terrorist violence and hatred fueled by it; growing radicalism including in cyber space.

Israel’s problems with surrounding countries and its neighbor, all close friends of India, were discussed but publicly dismissed with a bland statement – “India’s hope that peace, dialogue and restraint will prevail.”

According to Weinbaum, “This is clearly a message again that India is willing to openly align itself in an axis with the U.S.”

People-To-People

As usual, Modi made a meeting with the Indian community in Israel one of the cornerstones of his visit as he did in the U.S. despite a packed schedule. Embracing the crowd that filled the hall chock-a-block in his inimitable style, and throughout his visit Modi talked of the “natural affinity and warmth” between the people of the two countries, adding, “The Indian-origin Jewish community reminds us of these bonds. It also serves as a bridge to a shared future.”

In fact, Jewish organizations in the U.S., particularly the American Jewish Committee, has been active for many years in reaching out to Indian-Americans, organizing trips for several known leaders of the community, to Israel, in an effort to solidify relations between India and Israel through the community in America.

“I am confident the strength of these links, old and new, will hold us in good stead as we forge a partnership for the 21st century,” Modi said.

Netanyahu not only echoed the sentiments, he went further, expressing his feeling that India and Israel, were changing “our world and may be changing parts of the world,” news reports quoted him saying.

Analysts in India also see the Israel visit furthering the technology nexus stretching from Bangalore, Tel Aviv, and Silicon Valley, providing a boost for Israeli investors and innovation-entrepreneurs in India, the Financial Express said.  “While Indians and Israelis have proven themselves in Bangalore and Tel Aviv respectively, they also dominate the Silicon Valley in the US,” the paper noted. Netanyahu joked about the two most spoken languages in Silicon Valley being Hindi and Hebrew followed by English, the Financial Express reported.

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