ISRAELI PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in India for a four-day visit next week, marking another high point in the rapidly solidifying ties between the two nations. In a historic move, Prime Minister 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 stopover 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 Middle East. Netanyahu’s visit will also be about much more than merely defence cooperation and will take him to Agra, Ahmedabad and Mumbai. In a sign of their close personal bond, Modi will be accompanying Netanyahu during much of the visit. A roadshow in an open jeep in Ahmedabad which will take the two leaders to Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram will be the highlight of Israeli Prime Minister’s Gujarat visit.
Netanyahu’s visit to India comes at a time when Indo-Israeli ties seem to have suffered some setbacks. New Delhi recently cancelled a $500 million (`3,100 crore) deal to develop Spike anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) from 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 have reportedly been a deal-breaker. But now 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 visit will be an attempt to put these controversies behind and will signal that the bilateral relationship is mature enough to take such temporary setbacks in its stride.
Netanyahu’s visit will also be an attempt to make the relationship with India more broad-based. He is coming to India with a big business delegation and will be reaching out to the Indian corporate sector in Mumbai. There is a major outreach planned towards the film industry where the Israeli Prime Minister will showcase 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 (`25,400 crore) can be given a boost by enhancing highend technology cooperation as well as exploring new avenues in water management and agriculture.
The next stage of the India-Israel economic partnership is likely to see India leveraging Israeli start-up 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, but 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 are 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 will be visiting Chabad House in Mumbai where he will be accompanied by Moshe Holtzberg — who was just two years old when his parents, Rivka and Gavriel Holtzberg, were killed along with six others 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.
While defence trade as well as agricultural and environmental collaboration remain important, the Indo-Israeli bilateral ties will increasingly be shaped by the rapidly evolving geopolitical realities in Asia and the Middle East. 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 the Middle East, the Shia-Sunni rivalry has morphed into a Saudi-Iran contestation. A Saudi Arabia-Israel-US 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 antiIsrael position 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, it would be really helpful if the two are candid with each other about the limits of this relationship as well. After all, that’s what long lasting friendships are made of!
The writer is Professor of International
Relations, King’s College London