The Broad Mind | 20 years of Indo-Israeli relations – a rare policy bright spot?

by Somnath Mukherjee

For a government that has been (rightly) pilloried for policy paralysis, the celebration of 20 years of establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel is a rare occasion for the UPAII to claim a degree of coherence in policymaking.

First up, and perhaps most encouragingly, there has been no squeamishness in “celebrating” the occasion. The Foreign Minister is in Tel Aviv for the occasion, a slew of deals are being signed during his visit, an FTA is under negotiation. In short, the whole nine yeards. The optics are clear for everyone to see (and draw conclusions from).

Second, it follows through on a “Look West” policy initiative that has relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel as its cornerstones.

For Israel, the occasion comes at a time when its social-strategic compact with the rest of the Middle East is undergoing a fundamental shift. Its traditional ally, Turkey, has increasingly taken a position sharply antagonistic, primarily on account of the ruling AKP’s aspiration to reinvent Turkey as the primary “tilt” power in the larger muslim and Arab world. The various “springs” in the larger Arab world on the other hand – from Egypt to Bahrain to Syria, bring nervous portends for Israel. Shorn of the rhetoric, Israel had assiduously built a co-existance compact with the Arab street over the decades. The new dispensations taking over from the older autocracies , or those struggling to do the same do not necessarily share with Israel the same covert affinity of fear (of Iran). Nor indeed do the Islamists looking to cut deals in the same manner as Hosni Mubarak or the House of the Saud have been in the past.

At the same time, India has embarked on an ambitious new agenda with the Arab world, primarily woven around economics.

India has historically had a unique position in the Arab world. Not many remember that till the late ’60s, the Indian rupee was legal tender in much of the current GCC area. India’s support for the Palestinian cause was well in line with the Arab street for a long time. And even the surge in Indo-Israeli relationship has not taken the rhetoric away completely – note that SM Krishna’s next after Tel Aviv is going to be Palestine!

While Israel tries to navigate around the emerging Arab world and newer alliances, India can play a unique role in helping the it engage with it afresh. India’s in a unique place – its important and credible to Israel in terms of hard dollars, and it is important and credible to the larger Arab world (and Iran, in a delicious twist of potential opportunity!) in terms of hard dollars. There are only two other countries that have the same leverage – US and China. US is not trusted by the Arab street, while the Chinese tango with Israel will always be hamstrung by the large looming reality of US influence within Israel.

This is an opportunity that India cannot miss. By most accounts, it is doing a fair job of it…