Despite the bonhomie, there will be some continuing challenges in the India-Israel relationship

There will be differences in approaches to Iran, China and Pakistan, given our differing geopolitical locations

opinion Updated: Jan 22, 2018 17:11 IST
India,Israel,India-Israel relationship
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and his wife Sara Natanyahu at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad(AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to Israel on January 19 after a five-day visit to India, covering Delhi, Agra, Ahmedabad and Mumbai. The visit and the warm welcome — Prime Minister Narendra Modi receiving him at the airport and accompanying him on several events and tours — consolidated the post-2014 transformation in the optics and politics of the India-Israel bilateral relationship. It also showcased cooperation in innovation, agriculture, high technology and counterterrorism. Agreements were signed on cyber security, oil and gas, space, battery and solar technology.

Since the establishment of full diplomatic ties in 1992, relations between the two nations have been strengthened in several areas including agriculture, water conservation, science and technology and defence. Even before that, Israeli supplies were helpful to India during the 1962, 1965 and 1971 conflicts. They had made a difference during the 1999 Kargil conflict. Cooperation had extended beyond supplies to defence technology collaboration, including for short and medium range missiles.

However, high-level political exchanges were rare. There was a reticence here in public political acknowledgement of the depth and interest in the relationship. Prime Minister Modi visited Israel in July 2017, the first ever by an Indian prime minister. Netanyahu reciprocated within six months. This level of exchanges between the two countries is unusual, even with countries with which we have much higher levels of trade, investment and people-to-people linkages.

For Israel, with which many countries still do not have diplomatic relations, a growing relationship with a country of India’s global political presence, is helpful in its normalisation. For India, Israel has been a source of useful technologies. The second-highest number of start-ups in the world, after the US, are in Israel.

Several autonomous parallel events that took place during Netanyahu’s visit also reflected widening constituencies with a stake in the relationship. The US-India Business Council of the US Chamber of Commerce, along with US-Israel Business Initiative, held discussions with Indian, Israeli and US business to explore trilateral business and technology opportunities. Indiaspora, an organisation of Indian-Americans, partnered with NASSCOM, and Israeli representatives, with similar intent.

However, despite the new public bonhomie, there will be some continuing challenges in the relationship.

India was able to establish full diplomatic relations in 1992 only in the wake of dissolution of the Soviet Union and initiation of the Oslo Peace Process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That process is now at a stalemate. Modi’s visit to Israel last year emphasised some de-hyphenation, when he did not make a customary visit to meet the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. However, clearly a need is now being felt to restore some balance. It has been reported that Modi is likely to visit Palestine in February.

There will also be differences in approaches to Iran, China and Pakistan, given the differing geopolitical locations. Israel considers Iran an existential threat and is active in international and regional efforts to isolate and sanction it. India has a historical relationship, and finds the cooperation useful for energy supplies, and an alternative route through Chabahar port to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

China is Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia, there are strong technology and investment linkages, and Netanyahu during a visit there had described the relationship as a “marriage made in heaven”, similar to his description of the India- Israel relationship. It was the US which prevented Israel from continuing a defence supply relationship with China. On Pakistan, Israel’s interest lies in keeping open the possibility of relations. The foreign ministers of the two countries met in Turkey in September 2005. There was no follow-up because of Pakistan’s reluctance. In the joint statement, while there is a general reference to the threat that terrorism poses, and advocacy for strong measures against those who sponsor or provide sanctuary, there is no specific mention of “cross border” or groups such as LeT and JeM, which find mention in several of our other joint statements.

In the coming period, Israel will focus on what it sees as growing challenges to its security. It assesses an expanding adversarial Iranian presence extending through Shia-dominated Iraq, Assad controlled Syria, and the Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon. It is heavily invested in counterterrorism cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab countries with which it has diplomatic relations. There are reports of other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, having back-channel contacts with Israel based on common perceptions of Iranian challenge.

We will need to navigate our relationship with Israel keeping in mind the advantages in the bilateral context, and the challenges in the regional aspects.

Arun K Singh is a former Indian ambassador to Israel and the United States

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jan 22, 2018 17:11 IST