Netanyahu’s Visit and Indo-Israeli Ties

Benjamin Netanyahu’s six-day trip to India will feature soaring rhetoric, but it mustn’t obscure the limitations of India-Israel relations. Image Credit: US State Department via Wikimedia Commons

It’s unusual for a foreign head of government to spend nearly a week in India. That Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a controversial man from a country forever embroiled in controversy – has chosen to spend six days in India does say something about the upbeat mood in relations between the two countries.

Netanyahu landed in Delhi on Sunday along with a 130-member delegation. After meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind on Monday, the Israeli leader headed to Agra for the obligatory photo-op at the Taj Mahal on Tuesday morning. By evening Netanyahu was back in Delhi to deliver the inaugural address at the Raisina Dialogue, a high-powered annual jamboree of policy specialists and government officials from around the world that’s organised by the think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF). The rest of Netanyahu’s tour will take him to Modi’s home state of Gujarat and Mumbai.

Netanyahu has been pushing for a free trade pact with India, and the two sides have reportedly agreed to begin negotiations. ‘As an interim measure, however, we have given a list of several hundred products we want exempted from customs duties,’ Netanyahu said on Monday. Bilateral merchandise trade between India and Israel stood at $5.048 billion in 2016-17, with the balance in India’s favour by more than $1.1 billion. Netanyahu will be seeking to close that gap by increasing his country’s access to India’s markets.

Of course, military armaments still constitute the bulk of India’s imports from Israel. India remains Israel’s chief defence customer. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 7.2% of India’s arms imports in 2012-2016 came from Israel, with Russia accounting for 68% during the same period, and the US notching 14%.

Though it’s dwarfed by larger arms supplying nations, Israel is seen as a critical source of weapons by India. This is partly because some its armaments fill important needs – just consider the Barak surface-to-air missiles, whose purchase the Defence Ministry recently approved. It’s also because Israel has been willing to share technologies others have been reticent to give India – the 2002 deal for Green Pine radars are a case in point. Finally, India sees Israel as a reliable defence supplier, especially in the event of a conflict with Pakistan – Israel’s help in 1999 and 1971 is still remembered.

Israel’s latest arms deals with India, including the one for Barak missiles, could make it India’s second largest arms supplier. There have, of course, been a few hiccups. As this blog reported earlier in the month, India has scrapped negotiations for the purchase of 1,600 Rafael Spike missile systems for half a billion dollars in favour of DRDO’s homegrown Nag project. Rafael’s CEO Yoav Har-Even is one among several senior defence industry executives accompanying Netanyahu. He is likely to be busy trying to salvage the deal during the trip, having already set up a manufacturing facility in Hyderabad in collaboration with the Kalyani group.

The promise and limitations  

Netanyahu’s trip is the first by an Israeli Prime Minister since Ariel Sharon landed in Delhi 15 years ago. In July of last year, Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, where he was feted by Netanyahu who gushed that the India-Israel relationship was a ‘marriage made in heaven’.

There are solid grounds for optimism about the relationship with Israel. Defence and other high-tech trade is increasing. India is also less unequivocal in its support to Arab nations: Delhi supported Arab countries during their wars with Israel from 1948 to 1973 and continues to back the Palestinian cause. However, much to the disappointment of India, the Arab world did not support it during its wars with Pakistan and China. Indeed, West Asian countries continue to criticize India over Kashmir.

Also, as other sectarian and ethnic fissures like the Sunni-Shina divide and the Saudi-Iranian cold war have come to dominate the politics of West Asia, the Palestinian cause has lost its importance to the region, giving Delhi more room to grow relations with Tel Aviv.

Then there are domestic political factors. The BJP and its supporters are ardent admirers of Israel, seeing it both as a model for dealing with recalcitrant Muslim neighbours and as a shining example of national revival. While in reality, the Indian right’s ‘Israel envy’ may be misplaced, the idea retains considerable traction and makes it easier for the BJP, which also has far fewer Muslim voters to worry about than the Congress, to reach out to Israel.

However, while the India-Israel relationship shows considerable promise, it also has some inherent structural limitations. For one, Palestine still matters to India’s foreign policy elites – and not just because it’s part of the country’s traditional foreign policy. The Arab world accounted for $121 billion worth of trade with India in 2016-17, $71 billion of which were imports, largely hydrocarbons. The Gulf Arab countries are also home to about eight million Indian migrant workers. It was hardly surprising that India chose last month to vote in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution that rejected America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Much is also made about the common threat India and Israel face from terrorism. While this certainly offers opportunities for joint military and police training, it needs to be stressed that the threats are quite distinct. Hamas and Hezbollah pose few problems for India; and while Lashkar-e-Toiba did specifically target the Chabad House in Colaba during the 2008 Mumbai attack, such incidents are rare.

More broadly, Israel is a tiny country with no overarching geopolitical stakes in Asia. That makes it transactional in its approach to the region. For instance, Israel has flourishing economic ties with China, and would love to resume arms sales, which came to an end under American pressure in 2005.

Then there’s the question of Iran. Israel is implacably hostile to the Islamic Republic, while India sees it as a valuable partner. Even as Netanyahu was making his way to India, roads and shipping minister Nitin Gadkari was in Tehran inking a $2 billion railways deal. India is already helping Iran develop its port in Chabahar and hopes more railway lines will increase connectivity into Afghanistan. Last year, India despatched a symbolic shipment of wheat to Afghanistan via Chabahar.

On the other hand, Israel’s enmity towards Iran undoubtedly nudges the US to take a similar stance towards Tehran. This effectively denies the US a second route into Afghanistan for its military logistics and gives Pakistan much greater leverage over America.

Finally, there’s the intriguing but very real possibility of Israel establishing diplomatic relations with Pakistan. For Israel, establishing normal diplomatic ties with a major Muslim country would be a coup. Ties with Islamabad would also give Israel some leverage over two of Pakistan’s neighbours India and Iran. In 2005, the foreign ministers of the two countries met in Istanbul. And while no other meetings of this sort have been made public since, it’s clear many of Pakistan’s elites are only waiting for a conducive domestic environment before taking the leap.

In summary, while Netanyahu’s visit will help spur already stable India-Israel ties, it’s important to remember that the relationship between the two countries is the product of limited economic and political convergences.

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