On 13 August 2020, the world saw the beginning of the end of one of the longest-standing strifes between Israel and the Arab world when US President Donald Trump’s announced a deal between Israel and the UAE to normalise their relations. The deal between Israel and UAE, a long-time ally of the Palestinians, came as a surprise to many and the effort to enhance diplomatic relations would include the opening of embassies, trade and technology exchanges, besides direct flights and tourism. The historic day was marked in a way few could have imagined — the city hall in Tel Aviv was lit up with side-by-side flags of Israel and the UAE.
As the world, at least a significant part of it welcomed the move, political strategists were quick to calculate who stood to benefit the most. In India, most commentators saw this as an important development as both Israel and the UAE are two of India’s biggest allies in the Middle East. To this end, it wouldn’t be completely incorrect to imagine new possibilities to open up for India. More so, in the context of global diplomacy where our close ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia saw both Arab countries take a clear pro-India stance when it came to issues that dealt with Pakistan. But more than India benefitting from this newfound peace, it would also be correct to say that India in fact, played a great role in steering the tides for things to reach this place.
There is a general perception that Israel and UAE have gotten close as they share a common interest - a deep-rooted enmity with Iran. But this deal had been in the making for a few years and reasons extend beyond Iran. One by one all major Arab nations have begun to acknowledge Israel and although it might not be obvious, India has played a significant role. Since assuming office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy has created an environment where New Delhi has refused to function in binary when it came to choosing to stand with Palestine or Israel inspired the world to look at them side by side. It showed the world that the one could conduct business with the Jewish state of Israel — in 2018-19 bilateral trade (excluding defence) stood at US$ 5.65 billion, with the balance of trade being in India’s favour by US$ 1.8 billion — and Palestine — where not only Modi became the first India Prime Minister to visit but also backed an independent Palestinian state.
Modi’s personal efforts to craft a robust foreign policy has yielded results that have ensured that countries that opposed each other stood by India’s side when needed. In the aftermath of Pulwama attack, Saudi Arabia and UAE both supported India’s stance against state-sponsored terrorism. When it came to Abrogation of Article 370 and the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019, both UAE and Saudi Arabia officially stated that this was India’s internal matter. Much to the chagrin of Pakistan, India was also invited as a guest at the OIC meeting in February 2019 even after Pakistan, a founding member openly asked to keep India out.
One of the first indicators that the world got in terms of the possibility of peace between Israel and the Arab world came in 2018 when Saudi Arabia allowed Air India permission to use its airspace for its New Delhi-Tel Aviv flight. Although widely reported in India, the move’s significance could only be gauged with the global press the event garnered. Hailed as one of the biggest diplomatic achievements, it set the stage for the powers be to aim as well as achieve the near-impossible.
A few weeks later, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in an interview to a US publication said that Israelis have the “right to have their own land.” Nearly every report mentioned how Saudi allowing Air India’s Tel Aviv flight over Saudi airspace was the first sign of apparent thawing in ties between the two foes. For a culture that believes the world to be a family, PM Modi has advocated India’s mantra of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” on many occasions and it’s small effort to enable the environment where a landmark peace deal could be worked out is something to be proud.