New Delhi has broken diplomatic taboos by embracing Israel as an intimate partner but it also wants to stay committed to traditional Middle East allies
HERB KEINON, DIPLOMATIC correspondent of The Jerusalem Post, has travelled with Israeli prime ministers for over 20 years, and he hasn’t seen the kind of welcome accorded to them anywhere else in the world that he saw in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Keinon was stunned to see “hundreds of thousands of people” waving Israeli and Indian flags as Binyamin Netanyahu and Modi headed towards the Sabarmati Ashram, set up by Mahatma Gandhi 101 years ago along the eponymous river. “This is an attempt by Modi to have his desire to [enhance] the relationship [between the two countries] trickle down to the masses,” he says.
Most pundits who have closely watched India’s growing ties with Israel since 1992, when diplomatic relations became official, hasten to point out how far the two democracies have come since the 1990s. Says Edward Luttwak, military historian and an author who had fought the 1967 Israeli-Arab war as a soldier: “When heads of governments meet, a lot of fine words are used. In the case of India and Israel, a substantial percentage of them are actually true.”
On a six-day visit to India, Netanyahu is accompanied—besides diplomats— by 130 Israeli businesspeople from nearly 100 companies in sectors that range from cyber security and military hardware and water resources, energy, agriculture and health. Among them is Rafael’s CEO Yoav Har Even, whose $850 million sale of missiles to the Indian Army is likely to be scrapped. Rafael was to supply the Army with 8,000 Spike anti-tank missiles, and Netanyahu hopes the visit will help save the deal.
For his part, Netanyahu had tweeted as he landed in India, ‘We are ushering today a new era in relations between Israel and India. We’ve had diplomatic relations for 25 years but something different is happening now because of your leadership, Prime Minister @narendramodi, and because of our partnership.’
Clearly, as Keinon sensed, there is more to the bromance between Modi and Netanyahu than prime ministers have had in the past. The most obvious affinity draws upon the political affiliations of the two heads of government. Michael Kugelman, Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, points out, “Interestingly, there’s much in common between Modi and Netanyahu—these are two men with conservative politics and tough-on-terror positions.”
Kugelman could go on about the reasons why the two countries should move closer together. According to him, Israel can help serve major Indian needs, from sharing knowledge and technologies on better water management to providing arms and partnering India on innovative high-tech projects. He also feels there’s something to be said about the similarities between Israel and India more broadly, and particularly how they are both imperfect democracies in unfriendly neighbourhoods. The bottom line, he says, is that for reasons of interests, leadership personalities and geopolitics, these are two countries with compelling reasons to deepen their partnership.
The Sabarmati river front has witnessed similar moments before. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Modi had shared a photo opportunity on a swing. Japan’s Shinzo Abe and he had spent time there. With Netanyahu, Modi flew a shimmering kite.
‘Narendra’ and ‘Bibi’ had set the stage for such optics right at the outset. While Netanyahu described his Indian counterpart as a “revolutionary leader” in whose company he feels like he is at a rock concert, Modi said Netanyahu’s visit was a “long anticipated moment” in the journey of friendship between the two countries.
The two leaders also broke protocol and taboos. Just as Netanyahu did for him on his Israel tour last July, Modi received the Israeli Prime Minister at the airport. There have been moments both light and reflective. “My friend Narendra… any time you want to do a yoga class with me… it is a big stretch, but I will be there. Trust me,” Netanyahu remarked as he began his six-day visit. He also set aside apprehensions about Israel’s reaction to New Delhi having joined 127 countries to vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favour of a resolution opposing the recent decision of US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Admitting that the Jewish state was disappointed, he said “one negative vote” will not disrupt bilateral ties.
“Interestingly, there’s much in common between Narendra Modi and Binyamin Netanyahu. These are two men with conservative politics and tough-on-terror positions” – Michael Kugelman, Asia program deputy director, Woodrow Wilson Centre
The chemistry, cordiality and camaraderie between the leaders were by now familiar. The spotlight was on what was happening behind the closed doors.
Netanyahu has made it clear that his focus is on boosting trade in various spheres, “changing the world”. He described the relationship between India and Israel as a marriage made in heaven but consecrated on earth. These words bring back memories of his interaction with business people from China and Israel in Beijing nine months ago, when he also described their ties as a heavenly blessed betrothal. Netanyahu had encouraged China to assume its rightful place on the world stage and assured it that Israel would be its perfect junior partner in that effort.
During Netanyahu’s visit to India, the first by any Israeli prime minister after Ariel Sharon 25 years ago, optics have gone hand in hand with Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs). It was after a trip to the Taj Mahal that Netanyahu reflected on the relationship between nations. Back in the capital that evening, while taking part in ‘Raisina Dialogues’ organised by the ministry of external affairs and Observer Research Foundation (ORF), he said, “The weak don’t survive. The strong survive. You make peace with the strong. Make [an] alliance with the strong. You are able to maintain peace by being strong. Therefore, the first requirement of Israel from the time of our first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was to achieve maximum strength to assure our existence.”
Again sprinkling praise on Modi, who was in the audience for taking India 42 places ahead on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index, he spoke on the need to slash red tape and taxes. Netanyahu tried to counter arguments that the two countries do not share enemies by saying, “Our way of life is being challenged —most notably, the quest for modernity [and] the quest for innovation [are] being challenged by radical Islam and its terrorist offshoots from a variety of corners.” He was speaking on ‘Managing Disruptive Transitions: Ideas, Institutions and Idioms’, when he got down to brass tacks. “I like soft power, but hard power is often better,” Netanyahu said, explaining that submarines, cyber capabilities, science and technology, interceptors are necessities for “ensuring security for countries in the present-day world”.
ANALYSTS BY AND large acknowledge that Modi has broken past inhibitions in openly embracing the Israeli leadership on matters beyond defence cooperation. “Modi has brought it out of the closet and having done that, it should be taken further. Personal chemistry is useful, and so is going beyond it and what you do. He was the first Prime Minister to go to Israel,” says C Raja Mohan, director, Carnegie India, a think-tank.
The global Jewish advocacy organisation AJC, which has been engaged in a decade-long effort to establish a trilateral alliance of India, Israel and the US, views the new approach on India’s part as pragmatic. “Something new is definitely happening in both countries. It began under Congress, but Modi brought it to a new level,” says Jason Isaacson, the associate executive director for policy who has overseen AJC’s outreach to India since the early 1990s.
India has gained vastly from Israel’s cutting-edge technologies in agriculture and water management. Karnal’s Gharaunda Agricultural Centre of Excellence is a case in point. Modi has often made a mention of how Israel taught him the worth of scientific water management for agriculture. It was during his visit to Israel as Gujarat Chief Minister in 2006 that he was impressed by the semi-arid country’s success in this field.
AJC’s Nissim Reuben, who was the director of the Indian-Jewish American Relations Program, recalls that right from the time Modi visited Israel as Chief Minister, the leader has been interested in practical applications. “The ‘per drop, more crop’ [method] is an example of this. He had called India’s then ambassador Pawan Kumar and asked him to focus on getting the technology. From a Gujarati perspective, it was a business-like approach. He tried to harness the strength of our people,” says Reuben who grew up in Ahmedabad. “That focus of 2006 has now been brought to the national stage,” he says, “As Chief Minister, he laid a foundation for entrepreneurship.”
“Many recognise the potential of the ties. Look at the coverage of the prime ministerial visits. There have been nine MoUs. This is not just about symbolism. It’s not just about hugs” – Jason Issacson, associate executive director for policy, AJC
According to Kugelman, on a transactional level, a closer partnership between India and Israel can entail more arms sales, investments in India’s high-tech sector, and useful technology to help the country achieve irrigation efficiency. In Netanyahu’s words, “Israel is a fountainhead of innovation; India has enormous talent… In Israel, we achieve more with less, more crops with less water, more energy with less money.”
There is a geo-strategic aspect to the friendship too. “There’s something to be said for deepening a relationship with one of the key powers in the Middle East,” argues Kugelman. Though India has high stakes in Arab countries that are officially hostile to Israel, Modi hasn’t been averse to flaunting his badge of friendship with Israel publicly. Kugelman credits this to India’s diplomacy—how it continues to maintain a delicate balance between its growing relations with Israel and its ties with key Arab countries as well as Iran. “There’s something to be said about the recent incident involving the Palestinian ambassador in Pakistan being fired for meeting with Hafiz Saeed—clearly, the pressure that New Delhi put on the Palestinians had a happy ending for India, and with no negative consequences for India’s relations with Palestinians,” he says. “The days of non-alignment may be over, but India still has the ability to straddle multiple camps without upsetting anyone in the process. And that’s no small feat.”
Notes Vijay Chauthaiwala, a BJP leader in charge of foreign affairs, “After Modi’s arrival on the stage, we are never shy. The personal chemistry between the two prime ministers was always evident from Modi’s first meeting with Netanyahu in 2014 in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. As Chief Minister of Gujarat when he visited Israel in 2006, he was impressed by it in terms of progress in technology and other areas. At the same time, it is a fact that we have good relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Israel is aware of this and there is pragmatism in its understanding that India will have a multi-dimensional approach. We had diplomatic relations with Israel since the days of the Congress, but it remained under the carpet because of worries about reactions and how Muslims in India will respond. We are not shy of pursuing a friendship with Israel. Previously relations were confined to defence, but now these [are] government-to-government, business-to-business and people-to-people. Water technology, innovations, etcetera, are important. From being purely a security dominated engagement, it is becoming multi-dimensional. There is optics and at the same time the relationship is maturing.” India and Israel have signed MoUs on cyber security, oil and gas, air transport, film production, homeopathy, space, trade, thermal technologies and other matters during the visit.
INDIA’S VOTE AGAINST the US declaration on Jerusalem has often been raised as a cause for concern by right-wing elements within Israel, notwithstanding Netanyahu’s contention that it takes time before a country’s UN stance shows signs of altering. Isaacson says there has certainly been disappointment on India’s vote, but he adds that it was in the context of India’s history and recognition of its traditional interests in the Middle East. “When Modi went to Israel, meetings with Israeli officials were held in Jerusalem. By deed, Modi has recognised Jerusalem as the Israeli capital,” says Isaacson, “There is a mature understanding. Agreement and disagreement are natural between allies. The December 21st vote was a resolution condemning the United States and I don’t believe it will affect relations between Israel and India.”
India has broad relations with Islamic countries of the Middle East. Besides being dependent on the region for more than 60 per cent of its oil and gas, the country also receives vast foreign currency remittances from over 7 million Indians employed in the Gulf.
Isaacson does not agree that the India-Israel relationship is just about the personal chemistry between Modi and Netanyahu. “There are too many business people and leaders in industry, intellectuals, academia, security establishments who recognise the potential,” he says, “Look at the coverage of the prime ministerial visits in both countries. There have been nine MoUs. It’s clear this is not just about symbolism. It’s not just about hugs.”
For Israel, India, which faces similar low-intensity attacks from across the border, is a lucrative defence market. Arielle Kandel, an expert on India-Israel policy ties, says that according to declassified documents, Tel Aviv had provided India military hardware during the 1962 war with China and later when India went to war with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. During the Kargil War, according to reports, Israel had at short notice supplied India drones for high-altitude surveillance, laser-guided systems and so on. As Efraim Inbar, political science professor at Bar-Ilan University and the director of its Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, has stated in an interview, “Israel, unlike others, is very liberal when it comes to technology transfer.” This adds a distinctive edge to the relationship. No wonder that India’s defence research institute DRDO holds Israel’s military hardware in such high esteem. Many of its scientists have been to that country and seen its advances.
Behind closed doors, the two countries have also discussed thorny subjects such as Palestine and Iran. In a joint statement, both countries have reaffirmed their support for an early resumption of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians for a comprehensive negotiated solution on all outstanding issues, based on mutual recognition and effective security arrangements. ‘The two prime ministers discussed the developments pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process,’ said the joint statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs after a meeting between the two leaders. According to Israeli media reports, Iran, with which India has warm ties, also came up for discussion (questions are often raised in Israel whether India can be friends with both).
Beyond the optics, there is the politics of a tight-rope balancing act and a sense of maturity.