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Israel, India seek to build on budding ties

Chase Winter
January 14, 2018

Israel and India are trying to build on growing ties as they expand cooperation in multiple fields. But for India, overtly expanding relations involves a balancing act.

Jerusalem - Israelischer Premierminister Benjamin Netanyahu und  indischer Premierminister Narendra Modi
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Scheiner

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kicked off a six-day visit to India on Sunday, hoping to boost trade and defense ties to advance a complex budding relationship with New Delhi.

The first visit to India by an Israeli leader in 15 years comes less than six months after Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. Modi notably didn't travel to the West Bank to meet Palestinian leaders during that trip.

The warm personal chemistry between the two prime ministers has given rise to a flurry of enthusiasm.  Netanyahu in July hailed the relationship as a "marriage made in heaven."

However, the choreographed image of a Netanyahu-Modi bromance faces the opportunities and constraints inherent in any foreign policy driven by national interests.

Netanyahu and a 130-member delegation have a busy schedule that covers a range of issues, including such Israeli strengths as water and agriculture, as well as defense.

Other areas slated for discussion are strengthening ties in the oil and gas arena, innovation and cybersecurity. 

In the cultural field, Netanyahu's planned visit with stars and executives of India's film industry is designed to increase Israel's exposure and leverage Bollywood's global influence, Israeli officials said. 

Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu
Netanyahu and Modi walk barefoot on the beach during the Indian leader's visit to Israel Image: picture-alliance/dpa/PIB

Defense deal snag

Earlier this month, the buildup to Netanyahu's visit was dealt a blow when Israel's state-owned defense giant Rafael confirmed that India had canceled a $500 million (€409 million) order to buy some 8,000 Spike anti-tank guided missiles.

The cancellation reportedly came after India's state-run Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) offered to produce anti-tank missiles in line with Modi's "Make in India" initiative.

Israel is a major high-tech arms supplier to India, the world's biggest importer of defense equipment. India is in the process of a major buildup as it seeks to modernize and diversify its weaponry away from aging Soviet and Russian equipment.

Israel supplied 7.2 percent of India's arms between 2012-2016, third after Russia (68 percent) and the United States (14 percent), according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

But for Israel, the defense relationship is even more important. Between 2012 and 2016, India accounted for some 41 percent of Israel's arms exports, according to SIPRI.

Modi's Bear-hug diplomacy

Balancing act

Modi and his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party appear willing to break with past policy and cozy up with Israel. This is in part because New Delhi sees Israel as an ally against Islamist and nationalist militancy.

But expanding ties with Israel, with which India established official relations only in 1992, involves a domestic and international balancing act. During the Cold War India sided in favor with the Palestinians. 

India is home to 170 million Muslims and has friendly relations with many Arab and Muslim nations, including Gulf States with large Indian worker populations. It must also calculate the indirect impact of unilateral moves in the Israel-Palestine conflict on its own dispute with Pakistan over divided Kashmir.

Last month, India joined more than 120 countries at the UN condemning the United States for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. 

But overall, India's response was fairly muted and stayed the course on its position for a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian territories. Modi appears to want to compartmentalize the Palestinian issue, having met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last May before going to Israel. 

Netanyahu told journalists earlier this week that he would prefer India voted differently, "but I don't think it materially changes the tremendous flowering of relations between India and Israel."

Such sentiment signals that Israel prefers to keep relations with India to areas where they can agree, in the hope that they can gradually find more areas of cooperation.

In the long run, securing the support of the world's most populous democracy, or at least not encountering resistance, would serve Israel's diplomatic interests beyond bilateral ties with India. 

Differences over Iran

India and Israel also do not see eye-to-eye on Iran, which New Delhi views as a strategic trading partner and gateway to Central Asia and Russia.

A new India-sponsored port in the southeastern Iranian city of Chabahar will open markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia to Indian products while bypassing Pakistan, India's archrival.

Israel seeks to counter Iran everywhere and ultimately wants regime change.

Map of Iran showing Chabahar ENG


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