It is no secret that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu share a good working relationship and mutual admiration. Netanyahu just concluded a six-day India visit, marking another occasion when the two leaders showered praise on each other.
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They also vowed to take their countries’ friendship to new heights, and signed deals advancing cooperation in areas such as defense, agriculture and aviation.
“There are three things that bind our countries together: The first is that we have an ancient past. The second is that we have a vibrant present. And the third is that we are seizing together a promising future,” Netanyahu tweeted.
During the trip, the Israeli PM was treated to pomp and ceremony, and his itinerary was packed with high-profile engagements. Netanyahu held talks with senior Indian officials in New Delhi, visited the beautiful Taj Mahal with his wife Sara, toured Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Modi’s home state of Gujarat and tried his hand at a spinning wheel. He also attended a memorial event in Mumbai for the victims of a 2008 terror attack.
A new chapter in relations?
Until recently, India’s relationship with Israel was complicated and kept out of the limelight. Although New Delhi formally recognized Israel as early as in 1950, it hesitated for over four decades to establish full diplomatic ties, which finally happened in 1992.
Even afterwards, India preferred to keep high-level bilateral political engagement under wraps. Only last year did Modi become the first Indian prime minister ever to set foot in Israel.
The record of Israeli Prime Ministers on this front is only slightly better. In 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli PM to embark on a trip to India. And after that it took 15 years for another Israeli leader to travel to the South Asian nation.
Part of the reason for this low-key approach is New Delhi’s traditional support for the Palestinian cause as well as the compulsions of domestic politics, with some arguing that closer ties to Israel would enrage India’s Muslims – who make up about 14 percent of the country’s 1.25 billion people – and compromise India’s friendly relations with many Arab and Muslim nations.
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But observers say Modi has decided to normalize relations with Israel and treat it like any other country. The aim, they point out, is to pursue India’s interests and benefit economically and technologically from Israel’s expertise.
“For long, the problem was that we had been more pro-Palestinian than even the Arabs, and that cost us plenty in the past,” Bharat Karnad, a research professor in national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, told DW. “With a more objective and dispassionate approach, we’re now more aligned to our own interests,” he added.
The Palestinian question
Political analysts in India stress that this change in policy under Modi’s watch doesn’t mean New Delhi has reneged on its support for the Palestinians. They point to last month’s vote at the United Nations, where India joined more than 120 countries condemning the United States for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel
“India’s foreign policy is driven by its national interests and is Middle East-centric, not just Israel-centric,” PR Kumaraswamy, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and expert on Israel, told DW.
“It’s not a question of dealing with Israel at the cost of the Arabs or dealing with the Arabs at the cost of Israel. It’s no longer a zero-sum game,” he asserted.
There seems to be a conviction among Indian policymakers and experts that as long as New Delhi focuses on issues of common economic interest, leaving aside geopolitics, it can have good relations with every country in the region.
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“The moment you bring in political and strategic issues, you have to choose your friends and pick sides,” said Kumaraswamy.
An important friendship
Growing ties to India have been a boon to Israel, which has only a few countries globally that it can regard as friends. The US continues to maintain extensive relations with Tel Aviv, but most European nations are either neutral or even hostile toward Israel, given the Netanyahu government’s contentious policies concerning the Palestinians.
In this context, Asia is becoming important for Israel, both economically and politically. In Asia, India is seen as a very significant partner for Israel, not just in economic terms, but also politically and diplomatically.
“That is why India is receiving a greater attention in Israel now than in the past,” Kumaraswamy noted.
The two countries also share common interests, particularly when it comes to tackling Islamist militancy. India and Israel have long faced an acute threat of terrorist attacks, and they see each other as an ally in the fight against the problem.
For years, counterterrorism cooperation has been at the heart of their partnership. In India, Netanyahu called for the strengthening of ties between democracies to overcome the challenge posed by global terrorist outfits.
Increased defense cooperation
India and Israel have also intensified their defense collaboration over the past decade, with Israel now among the top three suppliers of weapons for India, alongside the US and Russia.
Both sides’ defense cooperation even extends to jointly developing military gear, such as the upgraded Barak 8 air defense system. Furthermore, India is a key buyer of Israeli drones with a fleet of more than 150 Israeli-made UAVs.
Still, it’s not entirely smooth-sailing, as disagreements arising from time to time have led to deals being scaled down or scrapped altogether.
India’s recent cancellation of a $500 million (409 million euro) order to buy some 8,000 Spike anti-tank guided missiles from Israel’s state-owned defense giant Rafael is a good case in point. After his talks with Modi, however, Netanyahu tweeted that the Indian government informed the Israeli side that it’s putting the deal back on the table. “This is very important for us and there will be many more deals,” he said, without giving details.
Modi has also been pushing Netanyahu to transfer some of Israel’s defense production to India, in a bid to boost the country’s manufacturing base and help create jobs for millions of Indians.
Indian market an opportunity for Israel
Analysts say the focus of the India-Israel partnership is now shifting from military to non-military areas such as agriculture, water management, desalination, recycling and waste management.
“If you look at Israel, there are a number of things where it can be helpful to push forward Modi’s economic agenda,” said Kumaraswamy.
“Attention is no longer limited to political and strategic interests, as in the past, but rather shifting to economics.”
Israeli expertise is much valued in India, which is looking to modernize its infrastructure in a range of areas. In agriculture, for instance, India would very much like its farmers to learn Israeli techniques and emulate their success in improving yields, said Karnad. India also seeks Israeli support to develop its start-up ecosystem.
For Israel, on the other hand, gaining access to the Indian market offers plentiful opportunities for its businesses to expand in size and scope.
Bilateral trade has jumped from $200 million in 1992 to around $4.5 billion now. Economists believe that figure could have been much higher had the two countries managed to ease trade and travel barriers between them. They note that China’s trade with Israel, for instance, was worth $11.3 billion in 2016, more than double that of India.
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To boost their commercial relationship, Netanyahu brought a large business delegation with him and wants to increase Israel’s exports to India by 25 percent over the next three years.
Despite the emphasis on business ties, experts don’t see any scope for a free trade agreement between the two sides in the near future. “A deal with Israel might complicate trading relations India has with other countries. The Indian government is not very clear as to how far it wants to go in negotiating these kinds of bilateral free trade deals,” said Karnad.
Whether they ink such a pact or not, observers reckon that Modi and Netanyahu will drive their countries closer to each other and under their watch, bilateral relations are likely to scale new heights.