“A marriage made in heaven” and “a special relationship with a major world power” were how Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterized his country’s relations with India when he visited India on a six-day official trip in January 2018. It is the first visit in 15 years by an Israeli premier and only the second to date.
Netanyahu’s visit reciprocated Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in July 2017, the first ever by an Indian prime minister. Netanyahu’s visit, coming only six months after Modi’s visit, with a big delegation in tow, is evidence of how quickly India-Israel bilateral relations are expanding and the important place both countries occupy on each other’s strategic radar.
It is no secret that cooperation between the two countries had preceded the establishment of diplomatic ties between them. India, with its large Muslim minority, and suffering the pangs of the partition of the country in 1947, was quick to throw its lot in with the Arabs in the Arab-Israel divide. On its part, Israel had always been keen to establish good relations with India, finding many parallels between the two — their ancient cultures, and their being young states and democracies in turbulent regions. But along with it, India also offered a vast market and access to developing countries through its leadership of the non-aligned world. With access to cutting-edge technology through its close alliance with the US, Israel was soon able to offer India military aid — albeit clandestinely — in the wars India fought with Pakistan, first in 1971 and then later in 1999.
Defense thus forms the bedrock of India-Israel ties. At the end of the Cold War, India was forced to look elsewhere for defense procurement when its major arms supplier — the USSR’s inheriting state Russia — struggled to keep up supplies, and Israel stepped in. The normalization of Arab-Israel relations and India’s growing closeness with the US paved the way for greater India-Israel defense cooperation.
Today, India buys defense equipment worth more than a billion dollars annually from Israel and is Israel’s largest arms market. Some Israeli defense companies have also set up R&D centres in India. A military expert told this author that Israel does not hold back cutting-edge technology from India. Moreover, one of India’s most important requirements is border management systems, given the volatility of its border in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, through which infiltration of terrorists and terror attacks on Indian territory from Pakistan continue unabated. India and Israel have jointly developed the Barack 8 defense missile system. India also wants more foreign investment in the defense sector, technology transfer, and joint defense production with Israel whereby both countries can offer defense equipment to third countries. Together with defense, counter-terrorism forms another pillar of India-Israel relations. Netanyahu was not exaggerating when he said that Israeli intelligence is possibly the best in the world. The joint statement issued by both sides reflects that apart from defense, counter-terrorism and cooperation in homeland security and cyber-security — in which Israel has emerged strongly — will figure highly in bilateral cooperation in the future.
In more recent times, the two countries have also collaborated on agriculture and irrigation. Together they have partnered in establishing 20 agricultural centers of excellence across different states in India, and when Netanyahu visited Modi’s home state of Gujarat last week, they launched another such center. India also wants to leverage Israeli technology in irrigation and water management, especially in water desalination. As a country whose one-third of the population depends entirely on agriculture, such technology plays a significant role. Joint exploration of oil and gas resources off the coast of Israel is another area that India and Israel signed an agreement on. Both countries will also be investing in each other’s start-ups.
India no longer feels the need to look furtively over its shoulder while pursuing relations with the Jewish state.
When the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power in 2014, Modi’s visit to Israel and Netanyahu’s visit to India were no longer a matter of if, but when. While all the previous Indian National Congress (INC)-led governments had enthusiastically cultivated ties with the Jewish state, they had kept it under wraps with very few high profile visits, although it was under an INC-led government that India had normalized ties with Israel.
The BJP’s close ties to Israel are well known, and Modi himself had visited Israel when he was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. When he became PM in 2014, it was Netanyahu who was the first foreign leader to congratulate him. This personal friendship and bonhomie was on full display on their state visits, when each host leader broke with protocol, offering welcomes that were to a great deal personalized. Modi tweeted that Netanyahu’s visit was “historic” and “special,” and would “further cement the close friendship between our nations.”
Yet, it would be short-sighted to assume that only personal fondness played a role in imparting visibility to their bilateral relations. Both Modi and Netanyahu are first and foremost shrewd politicians. For instance, Modi, despite his Hindu nationalistic image, made it a point to visit Arab capitals first. The visit to Israel came only in the fourth year of his prime ministership. For India, first and foremost, making no secret of its foreign policy and relations with Israel is a sign of the coming of age of Indian foreign policy. India no longer feels the need to look furtively over its shoulder while pursuing relations with the Jewish state. Moreover, it is prioritizing its relations and pursuing relations with all countries important to it, which includes not just the Arab states but also Iran, Israel’s arch enemy. This is also a reflection of the multi-alignment policy that India seeks to purse in its external relations. So, for instance, it did not hesitate to vote in the UN General Assembly against US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
Though Netanyahu, in an interview to an Indian media house, did call India’s vote “disappointing,” it did not deter him from making the visit to Delhi. Neither did the fact that almost on the eve of his visit, India cancelled a significant deal for the purchase of the SPIKE anti-tank missile with Israeli company Rafael that both sides had been negotiating for almost two years. In Delhi, he hailed India and Modi in glowing terms. He called Modi “revolutionary,” and termed his visit a “historic … expression of the return of the Jewish people to the world’s stage.” For Netanyahu the visit was equally if not more significant. He and his family have been facing a slew of corruption charges in Israel and this visit came to restore him as a statesman who was taking Israel’s cause to a “global power.” Although Netanyahu in the last couple of years had advanced his country’s interests with deft diplomacy, the UN vote proved that Israel was still diplomatically isolated. Bianca Zannini, an analyst, told Israel’s i24news that “Israel has been quite isolated in the diplomatic arena and having this heavyweight like India taking Israel out of the closet … is a step forward for Israel.”
Trade has also emerged as an important front in bilateral relations and India provides a huge market. So, accompanied by a huge business delegation, Netanyahu’s visit saw Israel courting business and industry, including Bollywood. The Israeli media also reported that the SPIKE missile deal was back on the table. (However, there have been no reports in the Indian media confirming this.) On the diplomatic front too, good relations with India means a breakthrough with at least a quarter of the world’s Muslim population that resides in India, as an Israeli diplomat had once told this author. Much of Israeli media has welcomed the visit. At the same time, the BJP’s constituency, which had been upset with India’s UN vote, has been placated. Nevertheless, the ever-increasing gamut of cooperation between the two countries demonstrate the potential of the relationship. This was reflected when bilateral ties were elevated to strategic ones during Modi’s visit to Israel in July 2017.