PM Modi's visit will be a giant boost for Israel


On the day after Israel's election two and a half months ago, the diplomatic community was buzzing over President Barack Obama's reluctance to congratulate Benjamin Netanyahu on his victory. Instead, the White House was focusing on his controversial statements during the campaign.

Another world leader had no qualms. "Mazeltov, my friend Bibi @Netanyahu," tweeted the normally reserved Narendra Modi. "I remember our meeting in New York last September warmly."

Now, marking a year since his own election, India's prime minister is bringing the warm yet quiet ties between the countries well and truly out of the diplomatic closet: Mr Modi has announced that he is to become the first Indian PM to visit Israel.

India only fully normalised its diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992. For decades, as one of the leaders of the "non-aligned" nations and with close ties to Arab governments and the Former Soviet Union, India's co-operation with Israel on security issues and on dealing with Islamist terrorism remained almost totally under wraps.

Even after they exchanged ambassadors, under the long-ruling Congress Party, old habits died hard. But with the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, India opened up to acknowledging the relationship.

It was under the previous BJP government in 2003 that Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit India, and now Mr Modi is finally reciprocating.

Under Mr Modi, India no longer automatically votes against Israel in the United Nations, and the alliance between the two countries, which used to be based mainly on arms sales and intelligence-sharing, now also encompasses burgeoning trade and joint R&D in a wide range of technological fields. The military ties remain key, with India the destination of nearly a third of Israel's arms exports over the past decade, totalling around $10 billion.

But Mr Modi's unabashed friendship with Mr Netanyahu also reflects an evolution in the foreign policies of both countries.

Mr Modi has an ambitious plan to transform Indian society and make his country - which will soon have the largest population in the world - into a financial leader rivalling China and perhaps even the United States. Emulating Israel's high-tech success is a key element of that vision.

With Israel quietly developing an alliance with Sunni Arab nations against the growing Iranian influence, India is no longer concerned that its ties with Israel will hurt its relations with its Arab oil suppliers.

Meanwhile, Israel is eager to show its main allies in America and Europe that it is not in danger of being isolated through a lack of progress in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

India is not about to become an alternative to the US and the EU as a trading partner or a strategic ally, but it is an important friend that will help Israel diversify its foreign relations and reduce reliance on traditional supporters.

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