An India-Iran-Israel alliance could be Modi's legacy

  • Viju Cherian, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 04, 2015 12:27 IST

At 9 Yitzhak Rabin Bvld in Jerusalem on a cool November evening last year a senior Israeli official, a diplomat who served in the Indian subcontinent, was interacting with a group of journalists from India. He eloquently explained the importance of India-Israel ties and effortlessly took questions, when suddenly he stopped.

The room, which was buzzing with chatter and the crumbling of cookies, fell silent. Someone used the 'P' word. A journalist asked how Israel saw India's position against it vis-à-vis Palestine and whether it impacted India-Israel ties. (That summer India had voted, along with Russia, China and South Africa, in favour of a Palestine-drafted resolution on "Ensuring respect for international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem.")

After an awkward pause, he replied, "As a close ally we value what India has to say. Rather than a third country, we'd prefer to hear it from a country with close ties to us. As for the second part of your question: India-Israel ties are not based on the relation each side has with Palestine."

At one stroke he welcomed India's views but at the same time made it clear Israel did not expect India to give its two-paise worth on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

And that's the temptation the external affairs ministry should resist itself from.

India's ties with Israel and Palestine do not (and should not) be interconnected. India has made its stand clear on the Palestine issue and this was reiterated by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj when she said on Sunday there will be "no change in India's policy towards Palestine".

Interestingly, Israel is aware of India's position and it is largely in line with Israel's stated position on the issue.

India should not make the mistake of hyphenating Israel-Palestine relations. If improving ties is the objective, Modi, and for that matter even Swaraj, should not combine Israel and Palestine in a single tour.

A closer analogy home will be the reaction in India to the visit by US secretary of state John Kerry followed by a visit by President Barack Obama. In January, while Kerry chose to go to Islamabad from New Delhi, Obama made a solo trip to New Delhi. In the political narrative of the subcontinent, New Delhi sees Obama's trip as a victory over Islamabad, or a statement by the US that it does not hyphenate India and Pakistan.

The three Is

A solo visit to Israel by Modi may not yield the expected political results, especially given that to date there are no concrete deliverables lined up for a grand visit. It is here that Modi can deliver the improbable and do the near impossible.

The dates of Modi's Israel visit are yet to be announced and it will be safe to assume that he will land at Ben Gurion Airport sometime after his tour to Central Asia in July. Instead of following it with a trip to Palestine - which will be a safe bet with little political gains - Modi should fly from Israel to Iran.

Outlandish as it may sound to the West, the fact remains that the Indian Prime Minister is one of the few, if not the only, world leaders who can pull off such a visit, and be warmly received in both countries.

India today finds itself in a unique position as far as the West Asian political cauldron is concerned. There are not many nations that have good relations with both Israel and Iran. It is a rare alignment of geopolitical stars that forms this constellation where India can act as a conduit between Israel and Iran.

New Delhi has good relations with Tel Aviv and Tehran. India-Israel ties have been growing at a steady pace and the NDA government has decided to bring down the curtains on the behind-the-door ties with Israel.

India-Iran ties, after a lull during the nuclear deal days, are back on track. Its ties with Tehran are probably the strongest India has with an Arab/Persian nation. In the event of US-imposed sanctions on Iran being lifted, India should further strengthen these ties.

Modi's legacy

In the cost-benefit analysis there are only winners in such a move. For Israel, it will not only de-hyphenate it from Palestine, but force other nations, especially European countries, to sit up and reconsider their current hostility and isolation towards Israel.

The political and financial incentives of such a move are too big for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ignore, now that he is doing a political tightrope walk back home.

For Iran, this could mean changing the equation in West Asia and will mean a greater acceptability and respect in the West-a prospect Ayatollah Khamenei will be interested in. It should not be forgotten that until 1979, Israel and Iran enjoyed close ties.

For Modi, the coming together of the three Is - India, Iran and Israel - will be the alliance that changes world politics. This will provide energy security and be a strong counter to terrorist groups sprouting every second day in the region.

Even if the returns are not as spectacular as expected, it will provide a platform for discussions that are much-needed at the moment.

If Modi is looking to leave his signature as a world leader who made a difference at an international level, this could be his ticket.

READ: No more hiding in the closet: 3 reasons for PM Modi's visit to Israel

(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @vijucherian)

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