The public and media attention on the visit of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, starting today, reflects ongoing fascination with how India negotiates this complex relationship, the rapid progress made since 1992 over the span of 25 years of full diplomatic relations, and the potential as well as the hurdles for its future evolution.
The fascination is understandable since the relationship poses challenges based on both aspects of geopolitics and principles of global conduct. It is, however, an extremely useful relationship, both for Israel and for India. But there are limits on convergence of interests, as is inevitable between any two countries, especially those with differing histories and dissimilarities in their geopolitical challenges. Nevertheless, the politics and optics of the relationship have been completely transformed, especially over the past three years.
I had served as India’s ambassador to Israel from 2005 to 2008. By then, it was known that Israel had been helpful to India during the 1962 conflict with China, and the 1965 and 1971 conflicts with Pakistan. Israeli supplies were also extremely effective during the Kargil conflict in 1999. Defence supplies from Israel had picked up, at acceptable levels of technology. In one of those years, Israeli officials had publicly commented that about $1 billion worth (about a third of India’s defence imports and a third of Israel’s defence production) had come to India. Collaborative projects were initiated in short and medium-range missiles.
Given the intensity of the defence relationship, I had hosted each of our service chiefs, secretaries in the defence ministry and of DRDO during my tenure. But the defence minister did not visit. Political sensitivities were seen as compelling.
Even during the earlier NDA tenure, from 1999 to 2004, ministerial visits were few. Things have now changed. India’s President made a first-ever visit to Israel in October 2015. Israel’s President made a return visit in just about a year in November 2016. The Indian Prime Minister made a first ever visit in July 2017. And now the Israeli Prime Minister is making a return visit in just about six months. This has been an unprecedented pace of high-level engagements, even compared to countries with much higher levels of trade, economic, defence, and people-to-people linkages.
Israel’s two largest trading partners in Asia are China and Hong Kong, the latter essentially being a conduit for additional Chinese trade. India comes next. Israel does not so far cooperate with China on defence, but that’s due to US restriction and not its own choice. The Israeli PM had welcomed ours in Tel Aviv in July, describing the India-Israel relationship as a marriage made in heaven. He had described the Israel-China relationship in similar terms during an earlier visit there.
Israel considers Iran as an existential threat, and is active in a global and regional campaign to isolate it and target it through sanctions. India has a historical relationship with Iran, imports energy, and is working on developing a section of the Chabahar port to enhance its access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
If Pakistan were willing, Israel would want to develop a cooperative relationship, showcasing engagement with a large Muslim country. Foreign ministers of the two countries had met in Turkey in September 2005, but subsequent Pakistani reluctance prevented progress. Israel also shows reluctance to specifically mention “cross-border terrorism”, hoping to keep a window open.
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