AS EXPECTED, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel has been spectacular. Apart from the optics—the glowing warmth with which he was received by the country— there has been plenty of substantive progress as well.
If the contours of the bilateral relationship have been clear for a while—shared democratic values, a concern about Islamist terrorism and a desire for cooperation in economic development—what was missing was the political will to firm it up. Modi’s visit provided that in ample measure.
Much has been made of the bypassing of protocol by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in accompanying Modi to various locations. It is not just empty formality, but reflects the importance attached to the Indian leader, the first in a quarter century of diplomatic relations who chose to deepen them. At crucial moments in India’s history—for example, the Kargil War—Israel has provided India help without quid pro quo. It was high time New Delhi bolstered this relationship.
Even at this high point, there have been discordant noises in India about how building close ties with Israel will lead to worsening ties with Arab countries. As always, there is more heat than light in such criticism. If one looks at the last three years of India’s diplomatic efforts, great care has been taken to first improve relations with Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, second homes to a large number of Indians, before doing anything comparable with Israel.
The truth is that equating Israel with the Arab Middle East in a zero-sum-game is a political relic of a bygone era. The guiding assumption was that better relations with Israel will alienate Indian Muslims, the emphasis being on the second marker of identity and not the first. There could not be anything more insulting to any aware citizen.
There’s more to India and Israel than just defence cooperation. India is endowed with water resources on a scale that would attract the envy of more than a few countries. Israel, in contrast, is located in a corner of the world where every drop counts. If India learns—beyond its deployment of modern technology—how to preserve this precious resource, the relationship would have done its bit for a large mass of humanity.