Im­por­tance of the In­dia-Is­rael re­la­tion­ship

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - Aviation Defence & in India - Cour­tesy : Ni­co­las Blarel, Indian Ex­press

Many ob­servers have qual­i­fied Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s visit to Is­rael as his­toric, with the po­ten­tial to el­e­vate the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship to ‘new heights’. How­ever, not one of th­ese ac­counts has prop­erly de­fined what th­ese ‘new heights’ will ac­tu­ally look like. The visit is sym­bol­i­cally over­due, as Modi was the first Indian prime min­is­ter to travel to Is­rael 25 years af­ter the two coun­tries es­tab­lished diplo­matic re­la­tions, and 14 years af­ter Is­raeli prime min­is­ter Ariel Sharon’s visit to New Delhi.

One could also ar­gue that the ef­forts to­wards di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion of ties beyond de­fence ex­changes and im­prove bi­lat­eral trade fig­ures (which have plateaued since 2013) would be wel­come de­vel­op­ments in the ma­tur­ing of this bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship. How­ever, Indian and Is­raeli press cov­er­age seems to have raised ex­pec­ta­tions. Should we then ex­pect a de­par­ture from the present trans­ac­tional re­la­tion­ship?

It is a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult ex­er­cise to eval­u­ate the state of In­dia-Is­rael ties given the unique his­tor­i­cal na­ture and evo­lu­tion of this re­la­tion­ship. From Nehru to Modi, In­dia has cau­tiously bal­anced its pol­icy to­wards var­i­ous ac­tors and coali­tions in West Asia, at the ex­pense of nor­mal­is­ing its ties with Is­rael. Since 1992 how­ever, both the Congress party and the BJP have de­vel­oped sig­nif­i­cant de­fence and trade re­la­tions with Is­rael while also main­tain­ing a strong com­mit­ment to the cre­ation of a Pales­tinian state. Given this his­tor­i­cal legacy, it is not clear whether the cur­rent Modi gov­ern­ment it­self has a clear idea of where it wants to take this re­la­tion­ship.

As chief min­is­ter, Modi had reg­u­larly ex­pressed his ad­mi­ra­tion of Is­rael’s mil­i­tary, agri­cul­tural and tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ments, notably dur­ing a visit to Tel Aviv in 2006. For decades, the BJP also pro­moted a po­lit­i­cal rap­proche­ment with Is­rael. In a first sym­bolic move, the Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee gov­ern­ment wel­comed Sharon to New Delhi in 2003. How­ever, the path to Tel Aviv since Modi be­came prime min­is­ter in May 2014 has proven to be more ar­du­ous than an­tic­i­pated. In light of Modi’s per­sonal and ide­o­log­i­cal pre­dis­po­si­tions, one would have ex­pected a more rad­i­cal tilt to­wards Is­rael.

Ini­tially, Modi showed an in­ter­est in up­grad­ing the re­la­tion­ship by reg­u­larly meet­ing with Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Benyamin Ne­tanyahu, pre­ma­turely an­nounc­ing his visit to Is­rael in June 2015, and en­cour­ag­ing a grad­ual re­vi­sion of In­dia’s con­sis­tent sup­port for Pales­tine in multilateral or­gan­i­sa­tions. How­ever, af­ter orig­i­nally sig­nal­ing this pro-Is­rael shift, Modi em­barked on a course cor­rec­tion by mid2015 and ef­fec­tively re­sumed the pol­icy of multi-en­gage­ment of all rel­e­vant West Asian ac­tors. Be­fore trav­el­ing to Is­rael, Modi had vis­ited the UAE, Saudi Ara­bia, Qatar and Iran. In an­tic­i­pa­tion of the Is­rael visit, Modi also hosted Pales­tinian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas in May 2017 and re­asserted In­dia’s tra­di­tional sup­port for an in­de­pen­dent Pales­tinian na­tion “at peace with Is­rael”. Th­ese var­i­ous de­vel­op­ments show that the Modi gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy to­wards West Asia has yet to be co­her­ently for­mu­lated.

As a re­sult, can we ex­pect any sub­stan­tial shift in In­dia’s po­si­tion? The cur­rent trans­ac­tional part­ner­ship which has emerged over the last decade holds at least four ad­van­tages. First of all, it ben­e­fits both In­dia

and Is­rael, es­pe­cially in the de­fence sec­tor. In­dia is Is­rael’s big­gest arms mar­ket, with an av­er­age of $1 bil­lion of de­fence sales per year. Is­rael has be­come one of In­dia’s most im­por­tant weapons sup­pli­ers, af­ter Rus­sia and the US.

Sec­ond, un­like in the re­cent past, trade and de­fence ties have de­vel­oped in iso­la­tion from the fluc­tu­a­tion of po­lit­i­cal events, whether th­ese were re­gional crises (for in­stance, in Gaza) or do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tions (across the Congress and BJP). Third, present ties have at­tracted lim­ited up­roar from re­gional Arab al­lies. Fi­nally, the cur­rent na­ture of the part­ner­ship means that chief min­is­ters and their state gov­ern­ments can di­rectly seek col­lab­o­ra­tions and in­vest­ments in agri­cul­tural and wa­ter tech­nolo­gies from Is­rael.

Nev­er­the­less, there is a sen­ti­ment within some Indian elites, and cer­tainly in the BJP, that Is­rael has reg­u­larly sup­ported New Delhi in times of duress, notably by pro­vid­ing mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal sup­port dur­ing the Kargil con­flict. As a con­se­quence, this visit comes as a timely pub­lic ac­knowl­edg­ment of this part­ner­ship. The visit also co­in­cides with wan­ing sup­port for Is­rael in the US and Western Europe.

Fur­ther­more, the stand­alone visit from Modi, break­ing with the tra­di­tional pat­tern of jointly trav­el­ing to Tel Aviv and Ra­mal­lah, has also been broad­cast as a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort at de-hy­phen­at­ing re­la­tions with Is­rael and Pales­tine. Re­cently, Modi also com­pared the post-Uri sur­gi­cal strikes to covert Is­raeli op­er­a­tions, pos­si­bil­ity in­di­cat­ing ways in which the Indian mil­i­tary could em­u­late Is­raeli forces in coun­tert­er­ror­ism strate­gies.

Th­ese pub­lic ges­tures should how­ever not be in­ter­preted as indi­ca­tors that Modi will pro­mote any type of po­lit­i­cal and strate­gic al­liance, but rather as a pub­lic com­mit­ment to a part­ner­ship he per­son­ally val­ues. In spite of Modi’s ad­mi­ra­tion for Is­rael’s achieve­ments in the fields of in­ter­nal se­cu­rity and counter-ter­ror­ism, the struc­tural dif­fer­ences between Indian and Is­raeli na­tional se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tions, world views (notably on Iran), and the ab­sence of ex­plic­itly shared en­e­mies (beyond an ab­stract no­tion of global ter­ror­ism) limit any stronger strate­gic rap­proche­ment.

There has for in­stance not been any at­tempt by the cur­rent gov­ern­ment to re­vive the idea for­mu­lated by the BJP’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Bra­jesh Mishra in 2003 of form­ing an al­liance to fight the com­mon threat of ter­ror­ism.

As a re­sult, while ob­servers have gen­er­ally hinted at per­sonal will­ing­ness from Modi to change In­dia’s tra­di­tional ap­proach to the re­gion, notably by de­ci­sively tilt­ing to­wards Is­rael, it seems that both re­gional pres­sures and op­por­tu­ni­ties have com­pelled Modi to re­cal­i­brate back to a more neu­tral ap­proach. That be­ing said, given the unique na­ture of this bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship and of the visit, a paradig­matic shift re­mains a pos­si­bil­ity.

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