A blossoming partnership

Last Updated 22 January 2018, 19:47 IST

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in India recently, marking another high point in the rapidly solidifying ties between the two nations. In a historic move, Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to make an official visit to Israel in July 2017. More significantly, he clearly signalled that India would no longer be hyphenating Israel and Palestine when he did not make the customary stop-over in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

The Modi government has taken India-Israel ties out of the closet and made it a centrepiece of India's engagement with the wider West Asia. Netanyahu's visit, too, was about much more than merely defence cooperation, taking him to Agra, Ahmedabad and Mumbai. In a sign of their close personal bond, Modi accompanied Netanyahu during much of the visit. A roadshow in an open jeep in Ahmedabad, which took the two leaders to Mahatma Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram, was the highlight of Netanyahu's Gujarat visit.

Netanyahu's visit to India came at a time when Indo-Israeli ties seemed to have suffered some setbacks. New Delhi had cancelled a $500 million deal to develop Spike anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) with the Israeli state-owned defence company Rafael Advanced Defence Systems.

Given India's strong push for transfer of technology in weapons procurement from foreign defence majors as part of its ambitious 'Make in India' initiative to encourage domestic defence manufacturing, Rafael's reservations pertaining to such a transfer had reportedly been a deal-breaker. But after the visit, there are reports that India might be considering purchase of Spike ATGMs from Israel via the government-to-government route.

Also, last month, defying speculation to the contrary in some quarters, India voted in favour of a United Nations resolution condemning US President Donald Trump's controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Israel expressed its displeasure through diplomatic channels even as India explained its decision, situating it in the wider regional context. Netanyahu's successful visit has put these controversies behind and signalled that the bilateral relationship is mature enough to take such temporary setbacks in its stride.

Netanyahu's visit was also an attempt to make the relationship with India more broad-based. He came to India with a huge business delegation and reached out to the Indian corporate sector. There was a major outreach towards the film industry, where the Israeli prime minister showcased his country as an attractive destination for the shooting of Indian films by offering tax breaks and facilitation.

Bilateral trade, which is hovering around $4 billion, can be given a boost by enhancing high-end technology cooperation as well as exploring new avenues in water management and agriculture. Innovation is the buzz word around which the two nations are shaping the future of their ties, and it cuts across sectors.

The next stage of India-Israeli economic partnership will see India leveraging the Israeli startup concept for generating more employment opportunities and to work together on technologies to enhance agricultural productivity. Though differences exist between India and Israel over issues related to technology transfer, end-user agreements, and a proposed free trade agreement, they are increasingly viewed as manageable in the broader scheme of things.

Despite the recent Spike controversy, India continues to have a strong defence partnership with Israel. New Delhi has recently placed a big order to purchase torpedoes for its new submarines from Israel and is planning to buy assault rifles for the Army from Israel as well. Israel's cutting-edge military technologies continue to add to Indian military firepower and is further reinforced by close intelligence cooperation between the two nations. Israel and India not only share common values and interests but are also targeted by a common adversary - Islamist extremism.

Netanyahu visited Chabad House in Mumbai where he was accompanied by Moshe Holtzberg - who was just two years old when his parents, Rivka and Gavriel Holtzberg, were killed along with six others at Chabad House in the 2008 terror attacks. Israel's experience in tackling terrorism and extremism can certainly help India as it builds domestic capacity and consensus on the best way forward. There are differences in the two operating environments but Israel's experience can be used by India to strengthen its defences.  

The Asia flux

While defence trade as well as agricultural and environmental collaboration remain important, Indo-Israeli bilateral ties will increasingly be shaped by the rapidly evolving geopolitical realities in Asia and West Asia. In the Indo-Pacific, the rise of China is challenging the extant regional order and India, along with other regional states, is coming to terms with it. Israel will have to figure out its own response to this Asian flux. In West Asia, the Shia-Sunni rivalry has morphed into a Saudi-Iran contestation. A Saudi Arabia-Israel-US axis seems to be emerging and New Delhi will have to navigate the choppy regional waters as the regional turmoil grows further.

India has significant stakes in the Arab world and India's recent vote at the UN against America's move on Jerusalem was a reflection of that underlying reality. New Delhi's longstanding relationship with Iran, in particular, poses a significant challenge to the burgeoning India-Israel ties. To its credit, Israel has so far refused to make India's ties with Iran central to its own India outreach.

For its part, there is a growing realisation in India that taking reflexively anti-Israel positions at the UN or elsewhere has not really made much of a difference in the way Arab states have managed India. In carefully calibrated diplomatic manoeuvring, Modi reached out to India's Arab partners like Saudi Arabia and the UAE before he visited Israel.

As India and Israel chart out an ambitious agenda for taking their partnership forward, the Modi-Netanyahu personal camaraderie has given the bilateral relationship a much-needed booster dose.

(The writer is professor of international relations, King's College, London, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

(Published 22 January 2018, 18:46 IST)

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