Why Does Israel Matter To India

Undoubtedly, it is the dawn of a new era in Indo-Israeli relations. This was visible from the great rapport between the premiers of the two nations – Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. When Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel set his foot on Indian soil on Jan.14, 2018, he was welcomed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outstretched hands of friendship, often referred to as “the hug diplomacy.” The leaders showed camaraderie in public appearances such as a road show in Modi’s own state, Gujarat. At a press meeting, Modi called Netanyahu by his nickname “Bibi” and Netanyahu addressed Modi as a “revolutionary leader.”

Netanyahu’s visit to India resulted in nine deals, ranging from cooperation in the energy sector to film production. A major strategic achievement of the visit was Israel convincing India to reconsider a lucrative $500 million Spike anti-tank guided missiles deal, which India had scrapped a few weeks prior. The two leaders pledged to strengthen cooperation in sectors that will touch many lives: agriculture, science, technology, and security.

Modi’s visit to Israel last year, in which he avoided Palestinian territory, demonstrated New Delhi’s intention to join hands with Tel Aviv more openly than before. This was a paradigm shift from past policy stances. To appease domestic elements, India had previously taken a much different view on Middle Eastern affairs, one that antagonized Israel. Arab nations were given priority since India was dependent on Gulf oil.

India’s open support to the Palestinian cause helped the key political party, the Indian National Congress (INC), gain more leverage among the domestic Muslim community as well. All these factors restricted India’s diplomatic relations with Israel up until 1992. The pertinent questions are: What prompted New Delhi to change its policy and join hands with Tel Aviv out in the open? Why does Israel matter to India?

The Policy Shift

The first major shift in India’s relations with Israel came after the end of the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. The world order was changing, and India was facing an economic crisis that forced it to open its doors to globalization. India perceived Israel as a gateway to the industrialized countries in the West. New Delhi covertly opened diplomatic channels with Tel Aviv.

While that change was chiefly driven by a shift in the world order, other factors also mattered. Close relations with Arab nations were not producing strategic benefits. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan had to an extent already come to terms with Israel, considering the Jewish state a companion in their proxy wars with Iran.

The domestic political climate also contributed to the shift. A larger support for Modi and his Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has reduced the significance of the long-held conservative view on Israel. Modi, who has emphasized foreign policy, is stretching his hands across the globe to enhance India’s profile. This is why a Brookings scholar opined that even as India is looking eastwards and attempts to “Act East,” it is increasingly “Thinking West.” A global leader with India’s size and potential must open itself to all countries.

The Israel “Matter”

Bilateral trade between India and Israel is approaching $5 billion. The trade engagement ranges from sectors like agriculture to defense. Israel is one of the largest arms suppliers to India. The constant threats of terrorism in the Kashmir region and from across the borders justify India’s need for sophisticated weapons.

By publicly acknowledging the bilateral ties, India could be eyeing more strategic achievements such as acquisition of technology and high-tech military equipment from Israel. This is in line with Modi’s ambitious “Make in India” initiative, an invitation to foreign governments and companies to open plants and factories in India. This would improve India’s balance of trade and boost its GDP.

A full-throttle friendship with Israel could mean increased technology transfers with “Make in India” norms. This will add to overall growth and position India as a military and economic counterweight to a rising China.

The Future and the Challenges

India-Israel relations are based on strategic needs. Israeli technologies could improve Indian agricultural production. For instance, in the future, Israeli drones may fly over Indian paddy fields, collecting data and helping rural farmers. Cooperation will likely grow in strategic fields like defense, security, and intelligence. India will likely be interested in buying more air defense systems, missiles, and sensors from Israel.

But the future of India-Israel relations depends upon co-development and co-production of defense hardware in India, in line with Modi’s “Make in India” initiative. A lack of clarity on existing practice may likely affect the momentum.

India’s Defense Procurement Procedures (DPP) do not offer a policy framework for defense purchases. DPP was promulgated in the aftermath of the Kargil war in 1999, which was a quick fix to a major problem. Both foreign and Indian companies do not clearly understand what the government wants to manufacture in India and what it intends to buy from outside. This might explain the differences that surfaced around the Spike missiles deal, since the Israelis expressed reservations with a full transfer of technology stipulation.

Undeniably, policy should be distinct from procedure. DPP is not a statement of policy. Though it has some policy precepts, it is mixed with procedures. Any procedural deviation, then, could also be termed as policy deviation, which is highly problematic. This may have a negative impact on the strategic partnership and could dampen the prospects of “Make in India” as well.

The constant threat of terrorism, ever-present belligerent countries in the neighborhood, and a deep-rooted mutual emphasis on democratic values make India and Israel natural partners. The Modi-Netanyahu rapport ties the knot firmer.

India and Israel are angling to strengthen their partnership in the next 25 years. A set of well-articulated policies from the Indian side will continue to help them move toward a stable, meaningful, and prosperous partnership.