The joint statement released after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel has a resonant declaration in its very first paragraph: “The 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”.
Media reports suggest that early versions of the statement circulated by the two sides showed a certain discrepancy. The Israeli draft spoke of new dimensions in the relationship but did not specifically mention a “strategic partnership”, though India’s did. The matter reportedly was sorted out in a subsequent huddle, though not without a visible display of befuddlement from the Indian side.
Perhaps in the process, there had been some bargains struck over other aspects of the statement. A specific mention of terrorism in its “cross-border” manifestation was lacking, in favour of a broad and more general deprecation of the sources and sponsors of terror in all its variants. India may have yielded some ground there since it has a recognisable border, which enables it to externalise all problems. Israel is yet to define its borders, is in illegal occupation of other peoples’ land and sees terrorism as a moving target defined at its convenience. A large part of terror as Israel sees it, originates within territory that it seeks to control as part of its supposed destiny.
Events as they unfolded that day, suggest that the term “strategic partnership” was included at India’s instance. The story of what transpired may never be known, except in self-serving driblets of information leaked out by the policy establishment.
Media commentary prior to Modi’s visit, suggested a certain anxiety on India’s part to make up for lost time. In the quarter century since the two countries established full diplomatic relations, partnerships had multiplied in military hardware and technology. There was also a degree of political convergence, especially in growing Indian indifference towards the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its daily catalogue of atrocities.
Israel nonetheless had a grievance that the pace of political convergence did not quite mesh with the material underpinnings of growing military cooperation. India’s transformation of a “bilateral relationship” into a “strategic partnership” is perhaps down payment on a future of deepening ties in military equipment and technology.
As a phrase, “strategic partnership” has tended to be much over-used in a world order that is rapidly fraying. It is often deployed in official statements to cover up a lack of substance, and by security analysts as a substitute for understanding. Though the sense of a strategic partnership can vary, one case to another, the term in general embraces a shared will and intent to shape the political environment across a wide arc, without the restraints imposed by national frontiers.
Modi’s remarks at the release of the joint statement suggest such an intent. “India and Israel live in complex geographies”, he said, “we are aware of the strategic threats to regional peace and stability”. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and he had “agreed to do much more together to protect our strategic interests and also cooperate to combat the growing radicalisation and terrorism, including in cyberspace”.
A first manifestation of the new strategic partnership is the exclusion of the Palestinian political leadership and civil society from all Modi’s public engagements. The joint statement also had no more than a cursory, single-line reference to the issue of Palestine, in the twentieth of twenty-two paragraphs.
This was a convenient evasion of brute reality. Aside from a fringe of civil society groups that actively campaign for an honourable peace deal, the entire Israeli political spectrum has nothing to offer the Palestinians, except apartheid in various degrees of severity.
India’s final abandonment of the cause of Palestine has come in stages, each one blending into the next as wishful thinking has yielded to sheer opportunism. If the shifts were to be judged by the assessments given in annual reports of India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), the attitude has been to either wish the matter away, or hope for peace against all reasonable evidence.
In its annual report for 2013-14, MoD recorded that the “escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine is a matter of concern and further threatens the peace and security of the region”.
The following year, the MoD placed what was clearly a grossly unrealistic burden of hope on the so-called “Quartet” process led by the highly compromised and mistrusted former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. As the MoD annual report for 2014-15 put it: “The tensions between Israel and Palestine is (sic) also a matter of concern as it threatens regional peace and security. India supports a negotiated solution resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognised borders, side by side at peace with Israel as endorsed in the Quartet Roadmap and relevant UNSC Resolutions”.
This theme was reprised in the MoD annual report for 2015-16, with the significant omission of any mention of East Jerusalem as the capital of the prospective Palestinian state. The following year, the MoD chose to avoid all mention of peace in Palestine.
India’s growing ardour for Israeli military hardware and its repudiation, by stealth, of the Palestinian cause has been attended by growing political paranoia over internal security: “Popular discourse increasingly portrays India, a country of 1.2 billion, as sharing Israel’s predicament – a nation under siege, surrounded by hostile Muslim neighbours, plagued by Islamic terrorism, and threatened by a Muslim enemy within. In other words, India is importing not just weapons from Israel, but a political mindset as well”.
Does strategic partnership also mean the adoption of Israeli military tactics in dealing with the discontents of the Indian nation-state? The catalogue of crimes by the Israeli state since it torpedoed the peace process by offering the Palestinian side a demeaning and deeply dishonourable deal at Camp David in 2000, needs no recapitulation. It is also essential to record that aside from these crimes against an occupied people, Israel has carried out a campaign of military terrorism in the neighbourhood.
Clandestine interventions in various Arab states and Iran have been widely suspected but remain to be documented. There is no such ambiguity about the 2005 assault on Lebanon, which involved indiscriminate bombing, the targeting of civilian infrastructure, proscribed weaponry such as white phosphorous, and the premeditated murder of refugees at a UN shelter in Qana.
The emergence of a new entity in the region is now cause for a realignment of forces. The Islamic State or IS, has no clear parentage, except in the chaos that followed the US invasion of Iraq. Despite that uncertain provenance, the IS has become the pivot around which a massive realignment of forces is happening in the region and elsewhere.
Reflecting on how the US in Iraq had transformed relative stability into nightmarish confusion, two respected American political scientists, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, argued in a solidly researched paper in 2006, that the “Israeli government and pro-Israel groups in the United States .. worked together to shape the (US) administration’s policy towards Iraq, Syria and Iran, as well as its grand scheme for reordering the Middle East”. Though not the only factor, “pressure from Israel” and its lobby within the US was “critical” in shaping the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
Israel has continued playing a role in the ensuing chaos, seeking the isolation of Iran and the dismemberment of Syria through endless internal strife. Ample evidence is available in this respect in Netanyahu’s own public utterances and the papers and statements issued by Israeli strategic analysts in recent times.
Clearly, Israel has the luxury of complete impunity in deploying a range of options within its very broadly defined strategic frontiers. Even with all ethical questions taken out of the equation in favour of sheer pragmatism, a strategic partnership with Israel may be for India, a burden too heavy to carry.
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