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Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India

Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s six-day visit to India from 14 January – the second by an Israeli prime minister – comes at a time when the two countries’ ties are left with a bit of a sour taste in mouth due to India’s vote at the United Nations. Defying all expectations of an abstention, India chose to vote against Israel and the US and in favour of a UN resolution, co-sponsored by Turkey and Yemen, which rejected Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

Netanyahu’s visit also comes at a time when roughly 1,000 villages and towns in India have witnessed protests led by Islamic clerics against Israel and the United States on the issue of Jerusalem, but more of that later. Some writers, like Ram Madhav of Bharatiya Janata Party, credited Narendra Modi for de-hyphenating India-Israel relations from its Palestinian fixation, especially since he became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in July 2017, and did not visit Palestine.

However, this argument on de-hyphenation is half-correct. In the run-up to Modi’s visit to Israel, which marked 25 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations, India made elaborate diplomatic manoeuvres to keep, rather than de-hyphenate, the hyphenation. For example, less than two months before Modi’s trip, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was hosted by India for four days in May 2017, and New Delhi expressed “political support to the Palestinian cause.” Also, in October 2015, Pranab Mukherjee became the first Indian president to visit Palestine, and of course Israel.

So, the hyphenation with Palestine will remain, as seen at the UN where India aligned with two of its worst enemies, China and Pakistan, to vote against the two of its best strategic partners in modern times: Israel and the United States. In addition to this diplomatic hyphenation, India’s vote at the UN on 21 December also reveals an intellectual virus that resides in the Indian mind: As a nation, in all spheres of life, we walk at the speed an elephant walks. The foreign ministry of Israel has refused to comment on India’s vote, but it did register a diplomatic protest.

In recent decades, India has not witnessed protests by Muslims against the West, not even on hot-button religious issues such as the cartoons and caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. Even the Left organisations have not been able to motivate Indians to organise anti-globalisation protests of the likes of Occupy Wall Street movement. However, on 22 December, a Friday, Islamic clerics led protests against Israel and America in about 1,000 towns and villages of India against the US president Donald Trump’s decision recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Although India’s mainstream media did not report it, these protests were led by both Sunni and Shia Muslim groups from Maharashtra to Tripura and from New Delhi to Bengaluru, Chennai and beyond – according to a review of these protests appearing in the Urdu media and published by the Washington DC-based Middle East Media Research Institute. Most of these protests were concentrated in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind was the lead religious group which led the protests, but Shia organisations such as Majlis Ulema-e-Hind also participated.

The Shia organisations marked it as Al-Quds Day, Al-Quds being the Islamic name for Jerusalem. It was Iran which began the annual Al-Quds Day to liberate Jerusalem, and is marked by Muslims on the last Friday of Ramzan, the fasting month. In the Aasfi mosque of Lucknow on 22 December, Shia cleric Maulana Syed Kalbe Jawwad Naqvi told the worshippers: “Muslims have the first right on Jerusalem and Israel has forcible occupation. If Muslims boycott Israeli products, this will be like an economic bomb for America and Israel… We are drinking poison (by buying American and Israeli goods).”

Jerusalem was a holy city for Jews for several centuries before the birth of Islam. After the Victory of Mecca, Muslims stopped facing Jerusalem in prayer. It remains a holy city for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Muslims do have spiritual claim on Jerusalem and are not prevented from praying in Al-Aqsa mosque, or in the Dome of Rock, a wall of which is known as the Western Wall where Jews pray. Nowadays, Turkish nationals come, one by one, to pray in the Dome of Rock, because Turkey, longing to lead the Muslim Ummah, wants to control it and therefore, it sponsored the UN resolution in support of which India voted.

The Indian mind is not wired for quick breakups. India’s hyphenation of Israel with Palestine will remain in the coming years. However, when Benjamin Netanyahu arrives, India-Israel relationship will certainly be upgraded to its next level. Israeli contributions to agricultural projects in India – as well as in defence, science and technological fields – is extensive. When Modi went to Israel, the two leaders sat in a desalination jeep which can purify 20,000 litres per day of sea water and 80,000 litres per day of muddy and contaminated river water. Netanyahu will gift that jeep to Modi, a powerful symbol of where our bilateral relations are headed to.

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