Once again, there is a hype in bilateral relations between India and Israel after a six-day visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompanied by 130 businessmen from more than 100 Israeli companies. Breaking the protocol, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived at the airport to receive his “dear friend”. During the visit, India and Israel signed a round of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) which include cooperation in key areas like cyber-security, agriculture, science and technology, healthcare, and industrial R&D. The Indian Prime Minister has invited Israel for more defense related cooperation; on the other hand, the Israeli Prime Minister has informed the media that the Indian government has decided to put $500 million Spike anti-tank missile deal back on table. Both Prime Ministers have committed to further deepen economic and security ties, as the bilateral trade has jumped from $200million in 1992 (when diplomatic relations of two countries started) to $4.16 billion in 2016. Israel stands to gain more from this bilateral trade as it has established itself as one of India’s largest suppliers of weapons besides US and Russia.
Both Prime Ministers Benjamin Natenyahu and Narendra Modi emphasized the critical threat posed by terrorism and agreed to hold the next meeting of the Joint Working Group on Homeland and Public Security in February. Both countries have developed extraordinary relations under the era of Modi, recently being mentioned by both Prime Ministers as “India Israel Innovative Initiative Fund” (I4F) and “India for Israel and Israel for India” (I4I). However the question that arises is whether the relationship is flourishing between two states or just two Prime Ministers.
There are mixed views even inside the Israeli state about this growing relationship. The Jerusalem Post, which is a conservative Israeli newspaper, commented that in the past many Arab states have repeatedly let India and Israel down, but now, by increasing concerns related to Iran, Arab countries are pursuing good ties with these two countries. It also stated that Israel is a strategic opportunity and a source of state-of-the-art military technology for India. The newspaper also highlighted that India and Israel also share concerns related to ‘Islamic extremism’ in the world. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu endorsed such comments by stating that both democracies are deliberating new ways to reinforce security cooperation against the threat of Islamic extremist. Both Israel and India have long propagated their concerns related to militant Islamists - in Israel’s case, essentially from Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai region and in India’s case, primarily from Pakistan. Away from the public eye, India and Israel have been cooperating against the threat through intelligence sharing.
Conversely Haartz, a much liberal Israeli newspaper, observed, “India wants an affair when it comes to Israel, not a serious relationship.” An Israeli writer Oshrit Birvadker also argued that if we look into the Indian voting record at the UN, it expresses an acknowledgement of the Palestinian narrative. Even recently, India has joined 127 states to vote in UNGA in the favor of a resolution in opposition to the recent decision of US President to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Apart from all these highlighted opinions from Israel, there are few important differences between perceptions of two countries on the matters of national security which may hinder the growing partnership. First of all, India does not share Israel’s unreasoned hatred and hostility for Iran, but India has, in past few years, become closer to Iran and commenced strategic level projects such as Chabahar Port with the country. India also does not share Israels’ anti-Iran stance in the Syrian case. Here the question arises that to what extent India would be able to balance its views in bilateral relations with Israel and Iran. On the other hand, Israel has not only warmly cherished China’s One Belt One Road Initiative but data from the Israeli Ministry of Economy shows that during year 2012 to year 2015, “Chinese investments in Israel saw an increase of 100% year on year.”Israel also does not share Indian deepest apprehensions with respect to Chinese expansion in Indian Ocean Region. In fact, Israel and China share a strong cooperation in different sectors such as trade, infrastructure, cutting edge technologies and research capacity. Ms. Hila Engelhard, the Israel-China Economic & Trade Relation Team under the Economic Affairs Division of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, indicated that Israel, as a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), firmly backs the One Belt One Road Initiative from which Israel would get considerable advantage. She also desired to improve trade assistance with China via this particular initiative.
Aside from these differences, even if this interest-based ‘affair’ between India and Israel is not a win-win, it will definitely bring some portion of success for India in different sectors. India can get advantage from the growing relations particularly in sectors of space and satellite, UAVs and drones, conventional military weapons and especially cyber weapons. As cyber-security has been the primary component of cooperation in the past few years, Israel may assist India in developing the long anticipated ‘Indian Cyber Command’. Kashmir and Palestinian issues share a bit of similarity at their core thus it might be possible that India also toes the Trump Administration’s position on the issue of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. If this happens in near future, then this will be a turning point in the relations between two states, starting the era of ‘strategic partnership’. Israel has already adopted US position on India’s larger role on the global stage as ahead of his departure to India for recent visit, Israeli Prime Minister Natenyahu stated that we are establishing the cooperation between Israel and ‘this important global power’ (India). Now question remains that will India bridge the existing gap between Israel and smaller Asian countries like Nepal and Afghanistan etc to expand Israeli influence in Asia. Time will unveil this as well.
A version of this article appeared in The Nation, newspaper.
Afeera Firdous is a Research Assistant at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad. She holds a Masters degree in Strategic and Nuclear Studies from National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad. Currently, she is enrolled in the M.Phil program at the Department of Strategic Studies, NDU Islamabad. Her M.Phil thesis is on "Counter-terrorism in Cyberspace: Comparative Analysis of Pakistan and India". Her research interests includes counter-extremism, counter-terrorism, cyber and strategic issues.