Home Comprehending the Israeli Political Spectrum: A Bird’s Eye View from India

Comprehending the Israeli Political Spectrum: A Bird’s Eye View from India

Why the Need Now?

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, will visit Israelon 5thJuly 2017 to commemorate25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. He will be the first Indian to visit the country ever since the two countries formally established relations on September 18, 1950 and upgraded that to the level of full diplomatic relations on January 29, 1992. In October 2016, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel, which was the first such visit by an Indian head of state to the Jewish State.Following in Mukherjee’s footsteps, Israeli President Reuven Rivlincameto India for a week-longvisit in November 2016. This was the first state visit of an Israeli head of state in nearly 20 years.These high-level official visits were not merely symbolic, they were accompanied with numerous profitable businesses for both nations.

It is widely believed Modi’s upcoming visit will be a historic event. It will commence a new chapter in the bi-lateral ties between the two countries, and will be a significant step forward for India to embrace Israel as a strategic partner. During this official tour, Modi will not travel to Palestine. This marks a major shift in India’s traditional foreign policy of supporting the cause of Palestinian statehood vis-à-vis establishing good relationship with Israel. However, India is planning to host Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before Modi sets off for Israel in order to balance its relationship with both parties.

Currently the bi-lateral business between India and Israel is not limited to arms purchase and sale- contrary to the commonly prevailing notion. The public and private sector of the countries are actively engaging in a host of transactions, ranging from scientific research collaboration to joint defence ventures, agricultural & water saving cooperation to venture capital & private equity investments,and so on. At this juncture, it becomes essential for all Indians, including the business community, academia and policy makers, to understand nuances of the domestic politics in Israel for it plays a steering role in the country’s international conduct.

This article examines the domestic political scenarioin Israel from an India-centric standpoint in order to enable our political and economic decision makers to take judicious decisions that uphold their respective institutional interest and greater national interest while dealing with Israeli counterparts.

Israeli Political Mosaic

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with its directly associated aspects (like question of Palestinian statehood, legal status of Jerusalem, etc.), has remained central to the domestic politics in Israel. Such is the importance of this topic for the entire Israeli establishment that the state defines most of its policies pertaining to national security and regional and global diplomacy from this prism.

Second, the nature of Israel’s relations with its neighbouring Arab countries has also been very important from the time of its creation and continues till today. The country has manoeuvred unscathed with changing political and military alliances in a region marred with all kinds of conflicts. Even today a priority for Israel is to choose situational partners and determine the nature of (dis)-engagements with any country across the broad region to avoid getting usurped in the prevailing chaos. This is a big challenge for its policy makers as they understand Israelneeds to act flexibly according to the changes that happen within its engaging partners and changing geo-political reality across the region.

In the recent years, all political parties and candidates have started taking strong positions on various development (non-security) issues ranging from the role of government in an economy with both capitalist and socialist elements to military conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews, etc. Furthermore, the role of Judaism in Israel as an underlying but important topic of political debate in this Jewish nation has always gained wide currency.

A unique feature of the political spectrum in Israel is its deep divisions and fierce internal competition. This applies to both within and between all political parties, unlike in the US or India where party members need to strictly adhere to party dictates and discipline.Ithas the highest electoral change per election in the world. On average almost a quarter of the total electorate shifts party allegiance per election. This is for a number of reasons, like elections being held under a system of proportional representation (PR), occasional splitting/ converging of political parties, open-mindedness the electorate to give mandate to new political promises and politicians, and so on. Not the electorate alone, but political parties – both big (like Likud)and small (like Hatnuah now defunct)- have adjusted their political ideologies and stances depending on their timely interests and convenience.

Another unique feature of its political spectrum is the constant spill-over of senior military officials into the national political arena- sometimes even before the ‘cooling off period’. Yoram Peri, a professor with University of Maryland, writes:Since the 1960s, on average, 10 percent of Israel’s Knesset members have been high-ranking reserve officers. Further about 20 percent of cabinet ministers are generally high-ranking reserve officers, and of the three most important offices–prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister–at least one (usually two) has been occupied by a former career officer, such as in the governments of both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon.[i]

Israeli Political Ambition(s)

The political objectives of the current Israeli government towards engaging with India are not uniform and univocal among all political parties to the coalition government and those outside of the government. Certainpolitical sectionsin the country, including Prime Minister Netanhayu, favour Israel establishing solid partnership with China.

Today the religious differences between Hinduism and Judaism are no morehurdles for binding together the societies from India and Israel as these issuesare mostlysorted out among the apex religious bodies from both sides. However, it isthe lack of awareness among the Israeli industry, mostly technological industries, to gauge the enormous Indian marketthat is acting as a major hurdle in scaling up the magnitude and value of bi-lateral trade. The country’s huge military-industrial complex, which is dominated by ex-servicemen many of whom have close relationships with the politicians, is maintaining caution whiledoing business with India. These ex-servicemen turned entrepreneurs want to sell their sophisticated armaments and associated components to India, but with limited transfer of Israeli technologies. Whereas, what India needs, in addition to high-end military technologies, is cheap, simple and accessible technologies with civilian application that can be widelydistributed across the poor rural areas.Although Israeli companies have started doing business in civilian sectors of India,  they are reluctant to downgrade technologies for adapting toIndia specific context. Israelperseveres to maintain its image of a global hub for high-tech innovations to keep secure its European and American markets, even while it continues to do business with India.

Hence, it can be said Israel holdsastute political motivesintertwinedwith interests of private businesses as it waits forModi’s arrival. Israel understands Indiais seeking new strategic partners’ vis-à-vis latter’sconcern for emerging Russia-China-Pakistan allianceat its vicinity.

Proposing a Mutually Win-win Partnership

Israel needs to come out of its shell of high-tech innovation hub and deal with real-time issues that the developing world is facing at present. This will enable it to win the trust of the larger international community, including the many poor states worldwide, which is imperative to counter the growing Boycott Israel campaigns worldwide. The country needs trusted long-term partners, likewise to the US, that holds similar democratic values and maintains resolute stand against all forms of terror.  An obvious option is India.

India, on the other hand, needs to scale down its expectation of winning over a technologically superior state- Israel- with mere political overtures. It needs to comprehend the nuances of political and economic motives of the country. Based on that, India should attempt to build a practical relationship that incorporates interest of divergent parties within the country and consider the outside reality.

 


[i]“The Military Politics of the Israeli Defense Forces,” in Uri Ben-Eliezer, Old Conflict, New War: Israel’s Politics Toward the Palestinians, (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp.81. 

References

[i]“The Military Politics of the Israeli Defense Forces,” in Uri Ben-Eliezer, Old Conflict, New War: Israel’s Politics Toward the Palestinians, (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp.81. 

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Hriday Sarma

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