Israel and India: The Ties that Bind

Main Image Credit Binyamin Netanyahu (right) and Narendra Modi take a paddle at Olga beach in Israel during the latter’s visit last July. Courtesy of @Netanyahu

A moribund Middle East peace process means that Israel is finding it increasingly tough to do business with its biggest trading partner, the EU. So, the self-proclaimed ‘Start-Up Nation’ is looking elsewhere for deals, and India fits the bill nicely.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last week capped a celebration of 25 years of official relations with India with a visit to the country.

The five-day trip comes just six months after Narendra Modi made the first visit by an Indian prime minister to Israel. Although not strictly against protocol, such a short timeframe between official visits is rare.

Israel is looking increasingly to Asian economic giants India and China as it is finding that its main trading partner, the EU – which accounts for 36.3% of the country’s foreign trade – is getting squeamish about deals because of the lack of progress in peace talks with the Palestinians. And as neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem willing or able at present to talk, let alone make any progress, this is likely to continue.

Israel is India’s third-largest arms supplier, at 7.2%, after Russia (68%) and the US (14%)

According to the Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu sees in Modi ‘a kindred spirit: a fellow rebel against Western diplomatic orthodoxies’. One Israeli diplomat told Israel's best-selling English-language daily: ‘Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname] loves these meetings with leaders from the Far East. They talk with him about business and security and there’s barely a mention of the Palestinians or settlements, if at all’.

Netanyahu made his view of this crystal clear last year when he was caught on microphone berating four EU leaders while praising Modi. He called the EU’s attitude to Israel ‘crazy’ and ‘self-defeating’, adding: ‘We have a peculiar situation. The European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel, that produces technology in every area, on political conditions. The only one.’

As far as China was concerned, 'they don't care about the political issues', the Israeli PM said, while Modi was quoted by Netanyahu as telling him, 'I need more water, clean water. Where will I get it … ’.

Military ties are at the forefront of the relationship

Since 1992, when the two countries established diplomatic relations, bilateral trade, excluding defence, has grown from $200 million per year to at least $4 billion in 2016.

On the military side, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel is India’s third-largest arms supplier, at 7.2%, after Russia (68%) and the US (14%).

Military ties are at the forefront of the relationship. Both Israel, under Netanyahu, and India, under Modi’s leadership, perceive militant Islam to be a major threat to their countries’ security.

For Israel, it’s Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, for India, what it claims is Pakistani support for Islamic extremists looms large. The Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate Raza Rabbani has already made it clear that the emerging nexus between the US, Israel and India is a major threat to the Muslim world.

In November, 45 Indian commandoes took part in the Blue Flag aerial training exercise, in which US, French, Greek and other forces also participated.

The Indians were there ‘to learn and share with [Israeli Special Forces] the procedures followed in mutual interoperability, counterterrorist operations, method of inducting and training people and try and compare to see if a course correction is required at our end’, a participating Indian officer said. ‘The Israelis are more battle-hardened as they have more experience in cross-border operations and we can learn from their experiences’.

And it’s not only joint exercises. India and Israel have been engaged in off again-on again talks over a $500 million deal to sell the latter’s hi-tech Spike anti-tank missile system to the Indian army.

Not all is sweetness and light in the relationship. New Delhi is helping Iran to develop its southeastern Chabahar port, and it backs Palestinian demands for statehood

For years, even before official diplomatic relations were established, military cooperation between India and Israel ran deep ­– although mainly in the shadows and at arm’s length.

However, until 1992, there were no ‘official’ relations between the countries. One stumbling block to full ties was the fact that the former ruling party, the Indian National Congress, was mindful of upsetting the country’s large Muslim minority. Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP, on the other hand, has far fewer qualms on that front.

As far back as 1965, suffering from a US and Soviet weapons boycott during the war with China, India mortars and small arms received from Israel. And in 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked her Israeli counterpart, Golda Meir, for weapons to help fight Pakistan. Meir agreed, diverting weapons ordered by Iran – with which Israel had close ties until the fall of the Shah in 1979 – to India.

When then-Prime Minister PV Narashima Rao established relations, he reportedly told Israeli diplomats that the reason was the need for Israeli-made arms, given India’s ageing Soviet-made weapons were falling into disrepair and the US had imposed a strict embargo.

However, not all is sweetness and light in the relationship. New Delhi is helping Iran to develop its southeastern Chabahar port. It backs Palestinian demands for statehood, and last month joined the 128 nations that voted at the UN to denounce US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

On top of that, next month, Modi is due to fly to Ramallah in the Occupied Territories to meet Palestine National Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. It will be the first visit to the seat of the Palestinian government by an Indian prime minister.

He will not, however, be making the 30-minute drive south to Jerusalem to meet Netanyahu, something the Israelis usually demand of foreign dignitaries visiting the Palestinians.

However, despite this, needs must, and both India and Israel need each other for trade and military cooperation.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Joseph Millis


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