Written by C Uday Bhaskar.
The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to India, which ran from January 14th to the 19th, fell on the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Indian embassy in Tel Aviv. The trip, a reciprocation of Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017 sought to further consolidate one of India’s most important and strategically distinctive bilateral relationships. Indian-Israeli ties have had a chequered past since the creation of both countries in the aftermath of the Second World War, however both are poised for a pragmatic future trajectory based on shared national interests.
With a population of under nine million and a GDP of $360 billion, Israel is a relatively small nation in comparison to the Indian behemoth with a population of 1.25 billion and a GDP of $2.2 trillion. Yet Israel occupies a very special niche in India’s security framework, notably serving as a supplier of critical military technology. This was illustrated during the 1999 Kargil War when precision-guided munitions were obtained from Tel Aviv under very challenging diplomatic circumstances and deployed against Pakistan.
The fact that India is among the world’s largest importer of military inventory and that Israel, despite its diminutive size, is a major arms exporter serves to compliment to the economic asymmetry that underlies the bilateral relationship. Over the last two decades, the quantum of military related imports from Israel has steadily increased and it is estimated that India, which buys almost $1 billion worth annually, accounts for more than 40 percent of total Israeli defence exports.
The Netanyahu visit follows rapidly on from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel, the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister. The Modi-Netanyahu personal chemistry was on display during that visit and the two leaders share many characteristics, including a visible political resolve in relation to Islamic radicalism and terrorism. In an important signal, Netanyahu was afforded a visit to Gujarat state via a detour to Ahmedabad, an act that Modi accords to only certain world leaders.
During the July visit, Modi observed that “Israel and India live in complex geographies. We are aware of strategic threats to regional peace and stability. Prime Minister Netanyahu and I agreed to do much more together to protect our strategic interests.” The joint statement also added: “There can be no justification of acts of terror on any grounds whatsoever.”
While the bilateral with Israel has been loftily described as a “strategic partnership”, India’s relations with the Jewish nation cannot be divorced from the larger West Asian geopolitical canvas that has Palestine as a major factor. The Jewish quest for a permanent homeland goes back by over a century and it merits recall that Mahatma Gandhi had opined in 1931:” I can understand the longing of a Jew to return to Palestine, and he can do so if he can without the help of bayonets, whether his own or those of Britain… in perfect friendliness with the Arabs.” This sentiment still shapes the Indian approach to the complex and hopelessly tangled issue of Palestine.
India has traditionally supported the Palestine cause on the international stage and has over the years sought to maintain a fine balance as regards its bilateral with Israel in the competing regional politics of West Asia and the Islamic world. It appeared that the BJP-led Modi government had taken a bold decision to remove the hyphenation between Israel and Palestine but it would be misleading to infer that the current dispensation in Delhi has uncritically cast its weight totally with Israel and by default the United States
The recent vote at the United Nations over the Trump declaration regarding Jerusalem saw Delhi voting with the larger global consensus that had censured the US over its announcement. To his credit Netanyahu, on the eve of his India visit, noted that this vote would not materially affect the bilateral. India and Israel are keen to expand the current bandwidth of the trade and economic relations to move beyond military sales and include energy, cyber security and innovation in desert /arid land agriculture among other sectors.
Security ties between India and Israel, underwritten by a shared struggle against Islamist-led terrorism, continue to define the relationship however. The last leg of the Netanyahu visit took him to Mumbai alongside meeting India’s largest Bollywood stars, the Israeli prime minister also paid tribute to the victims of the November 2008 terror attacks that targeted Chabad House. In this, both Israel and India have a common cause as justice for the innocent victims, both Indian and Israeli, still remains elusive close to a decade on.
C Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and currently serves at the Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He tweets at @theUdayB. This article was first published on the South Asia Monitor and can be found here. Image credit: by Indian Ministry of External Affairs/Flickr.