Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, hugs his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Picture: Reuters
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel this week was indicative of a significant shift in India’s foreign policy orientation. Ever since India’s independence from Britain, it had been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, to the extent that up until 1992 it would not allow its citizens to enter Israel on an Indian passport.

While India recognised Israel since 1950, it strongly supported a two-state solution and used multilateral platforms to articulate its support for Palestinian rights.

It was only in 1992 that India, led by the Congress Party, established diplomatic ties with Israel. At the time it was largely driven by India’s desire to get closer to Washington.

While economic and trade relations between India and Israel have been warm over the past two decades, India under the Congress Party kept the relationship discreet and continued its unwavering support for the Palestinian cause in international forums. With the rise of the BJP in the 2014 elections, India became more restrained in criticising Israeli human rights abuses.

During the Israeli onslaught on Gaza in 2014, the Indian government prevented a parliamentary resolution condemning Israel’s violence. But it did, however, vote with the Brics grouping at the UN Human Rights Council in the same year in favour of a resolution to launch a probe into Israel’s human rights violations.

But any nuance that existed at the beginning of the Modi administration has fallen away, as the Indian government forges a public alliance with Israel. As Modi made the first visit of a sitting Indian prime minister to Israel last week, the optics suggested that the two countries would be the closest of allies. Modi dressed in the colours of the Israeli flag - blue and white, and articulated the slogan “India for Israel”.

While Modi claims that India supports the two-state solution, there was none of the fanfare and symbolism of solidarity when Modi met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this year. Modi has opened a new era in India-Israel relations - forging collaboration and trade in defence, technology, agriculture, tourism and pharmaceuticals.

The developments signify that the age of solidarity on human rights causes in India is over. By standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and expressing solidarity with Israel, India is accused of abandoning its commitment to upholding the rights of colonised people to fight for their freedom. Furthermore, activists allude to India’s failure to uphold universal rights that it once rightly claimed for itself.

Modi’s foreign policy towards Israel is what Israel has wanted to achieve - to ensure that pivotal countries in the developing world forge close relations with Israel, thereby breaking the global south’s solidarity with the Palestinian people. What Netanyahu pulled off through Modi’s visit was nothing short of a diplomatic coup. Israel will expect India to vote with it at the UN and in other international bodies, and the hope is that other countries follow suit.

The reality is that solidarity with the Palestinians remains strong across the developing world - from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. At the ANC policy conference last week, delegates resolved that there were two options that must be implemented with regard to South Africa’s relations with Israel: Either downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv or close the embassy. This is the strongest position taken yet by the ANC in solidarity with the Palestinian people and was intended to send a strong message to the Israelis.

Academics who analysed what underlies this new meeting of minds between Modi and Netanyahu, explained it as the rise of exclusionary politics. Under the BJP there has been the entrenchment of the ideology of Hindutra - or the supremacy of Hindus over others, as the government turns a blind eye to the lynching of Indian Muslims by cow vigilantes. Just as Modi wants India to be a state based on religious identity, so does Netanyahu insist on Israel being a state based on religious identity.

For Modi, the primary driver of India’s foreign policy towards Israel is to become an unrivalled military power in the region. It is the massive potential for acquiring copious amounts of hi-tech weaponry, which might give India an edge over Pakistan when it comes to Kashmir, especially with Israel’s latest drone technology. Israeli military technology will help India to fuel its military modernisation programme and will also probably led to a renewed arms race between two nuclear powers with potentially fatal consequences.

* Ebrahim is the group foreign editor.

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