Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in India last week on a five-day visit, underlining the growing ties between two major democracies, one in South Asia and one in the Middle East. There is now domestic consensus in India that strong ties with Israel are essential for Indian national security interests.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves credit for investing personally in this relationship and for finally de-hyphenating India’s relationship with Israel from Palestine. This was an important move, as for decades, even as Israel stood with India in times of crises, Indian political leadership was shy of reciprocating. Everything was done behind the scenes; New Delhi expected that Israel should continue its cooperation on defense and intelligence while it could get away with being coy. Modi has changed this for the better, as bilateral relationships should stand on their own merit. If the Arab world can engage with Israel despite proclaiming to be the biggest supporter of the Palestinian cause, India can certainly be more honest with Israel. India’s ties with Israel have always been embroiled in its own domestic politics, but in recent years a wider political consensus has emerged on strong Indo-Israeli ties.
Today, the relationship is moving beyond just defense. Netanyahu’s visit largely focused on economic and high-end technology cooperation as well as boosting people-to-people linkages through cinema and tourism. Israel’s technological prowess remains unmatched in areas as diverse as waste management and reprocessing, desalination, agriculture, waste water recycling, health, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. This is something that India is looking to tap into.
The overall relationship has never been stronger. It is a sign of a mature partnership between India and Israel that India’s vote at the UN against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision on Jerusalem and the reported cancellation of the Spike anti-tank guided missile deal did not vitiate the climate ahead of Netanyahu’s visit. As the Israeli prime minister himself pointed out, “I don’t think it [India’s UN vote] materially changes the tremendous flowering of relations between India and Israel.”
India-Israel economic cooperation is below potential, but the two sides are now re-evaluating and trying to take the relationship beyond just an export-import dimension. This means that the two sides will have to explore high technology cooperation in particular and enhance cooperation in areas where the two can help each other in building capacity. That seems to be the road map agreed to during Modi’s visit to Israel last year. The free trade agreement (FTA) is stuck because, as with other FTAs, there are concerns from the Indian domestic industry that make it difficult for the government to move forward. This is not an Israel-specific issue; India’s track record on FTAs is not great. Unless there is a wider domestic agreement on India’s trade policies, it is unlikely that this particular FTA will move forward.
But, in the meantime, India-Israel counterterrorism cooperation is quite robust and has been scaled up gradually over the last few years through a joint working group on terrorism. Intelligence-sharing in this realm has been the most important element of this partnership. In this day and age, when shadowy extremist groups operate freely across borders, information and intelligence-sharing are key in tackling this menace in open societies like India and Israel. Israel is helping India improve border management along the India-Pakistan border given Israel’s experience in dealing with cross-border infiltration and terrorism. Cybersecurity cooperation is also expanding, with cybersecurity academies being set up in India by an Israeli company, Vital Intelligence Group.
For Israel, Iran is the most significant national security threat. It views the threat from Iran in existential terms, so it is to be expected that Israel will have strong views on Iran’s regional role. But it is a sign of the growing maturity of India-Israel relations that Israel has not made Indo-Iranian ties central to its engagement with India. It is certainly a factor but not the most important one. There is a recognition in Israel that India’s ties with Iran are longstanding and should be viewed in the wider regional context, where India is trying to develop regional connectivity via Iran to Central Asia. The United States has been more of a factor in this regard, often making India-Iran ties a litmus test of its own engagement with India. But Israel has been working on its ties with India patiently and on their own merit. As Iran integrates itself more closely with the wider international community and joins the mainstream, something which President Hassan Rouhani has been trying to do, it will alleviate this pressure on India’s ties with Israel. India and Israel have been having regular exchanges on regional geopolitics in the wider Middle East and this is the best way to understand each other’s concerns.
Like most countries, Israel is also adjusting to a world where China’s imprimatur is getting stronger. Its ties with China have been growing at a time when it is reaching out to non-Western powers in a big way. Asia is a particular priority. Just as Israel has not made its ties with India contingent upon any third country, India too can do the same and in fact has done the same. A conversation about the changing geopolitical realities in the Indo-Pacific should be a priority for the two nations. While the United States still enjoys a veto over the sale of sensitive technologies to China by Israel, the future may be more uncertain as Chinese investments in Israeli technologies grow. American pressure in Israel resulted in a dampening of and in some cases scuttling of Sino-Israeli military-security cooperation, but the political engagement between the two continued. Though the breadth and depth of India-Israel ties is no match as of now for the Sino-Israeli one, which is largely driven by trade and commerce, New Delhi should be aware that Chinese influence will only grow in the coming years with it already being Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia and third largest in the world. Prioritizing economic and trade ties in India-Israel ties should be viewed as a priority.