India-Israel relations can deliver a “Make in India” success.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives on a landmark visit to India on Sunday. Although a predecessor, Ariel Sharon, did visit this country well over a decade ago, the present journey invites greater attention due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s standalone visit to Israel last year. Mr Netanyahu starts trip in New Delhi, goes to Ahmedabad, de rigueur protocol-wise since Mr Modi’s ascent, and then Mumbai, the scene of the 26/11 terror attack, as much on Israel as India. On the sunnier side, he will engage Bollywood for closer cinematic links.
The visit commemorates 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations. In January 1992, Hardeep Singh Puri, now minister of state for housing and urban affairs, then director of foreign secretary J.N. Dixit’s office, had sought from me, as then director (West Asia, North Africa), a Cabinet note extremely urgently on establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao had begun adjusting India in 1991-92 to the post-Cold War era. The note went up and was approved by the Cabinet over the weekend. The Madrid peace process had already brought the Palestinians and the Israelis, as indeed other principal Arab players, to the negotiating table. India was told it was unwelcome even as an observer unless it had relations with all parties. As the Palestinian cause’s loudest non-Islamic supporter, India faced a new reality. A quick correction ensued as India opened its embassy in Tel Aviv in January 1992.
India thus escaped a trap created during the freedom struggle when after the Amritsar AICC conference Mahatma Gandhi had strongly supported the Khilafat movement and the Ali brothers from 1920 onwards. Ironically, this Congress attempt to bridge the Hindu-Muslim divide had bothered Mohammed Ali Jinnah the most, as his control over Muslims began slipping. As subsequent events revealed, this was unsustainable in the 1940s, leading to India’s Partition. But Indian foreign policy had inherited the Palestinian cause and became its prisoner. Narasimha Rao finally broke these shackles as the geostrategic plates shifted.
Indo-Israeli relations overnight became kosher or legitimate. But residual reservations about not offending Muslim nations or the minorities at home persisted. Israel became a reliable defence equipment supplier, a source for dual-use technologies, access to which then was restricted for India because of its nuclear and space programmes worsening yet following the 1998 nuclear test. Myriad other techniques for efficient use of water and higher yields in agriculture were accessed. During the Kargil war, Israel supplied critical munitions even more promptly than our old defence partners. Israeli counter-terrorism capabilities were another crucial field for cooperation. Visits by senior ministers became more frequent once the BJP-led government of Atal Behari Vajpayee assumed office in 1998. The de facto number two, home minister L.K. Advani, and then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh visited Israel in 2000. But till last year, India’s Prime Ministers had avoided the invitations. In 2015, President Pranab
Mukherjee went on a visit to Israel, but carefully balanced it by visiting the Palestinian territories as well. Mr Modi, however, removed that hesitation last year by his visit only to Israel.
The geopolitics of the region has again mutated post-ISIS. The P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal that unshackled Iran from Western sanctions and willy-nilly allowed it to marshal its resources to counter ISIS. The result was that an axis was born — of Iran, Russia and the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria — to drive ISIS against the anvil of US airpower, Turkish sealing of its northern border, Kurdish forces and the Iraqi Army. But US President Donald Trump is now pushing back Iran by resurrecting the alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This has exacerbated the Shia-Sunni divide and created an intra-GCC split, with Qatar targeted. Turkey, America’s Nato ally, now leans towards Iran and Qatar. The focus has shifted from Palestine to the Sunni Gulf ruling families’ fear of an Iran-led Shia crescent. Thus, President Trump’s sudden recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, unrelated to a final settlement between Israel and Palestine, strongly incensed Iran’s supreme leader and the Turks. The Saudis and other GCC members offered pro forma public opposition, with perhaps some private beseeching.
Thus, as New Delhi welcomes Mr Netanyahu, now on the backfoot back home over corruption charges and embarrassed by his son’s videotaped soliciting of bar girls alongside the son of a businessman allotted gas fields by the government, a reality check is in order. First, Israel-China relations are robust, particularly in defence. Israel is now the second largest supplier of defence equipment to China, after Russia. Even more significantly, it is suspected to have transferred missile, laser and aviation technology to China. The sale of the Phalcon airborne early-warning system was thwarted only because the US vetoed it. Bilateral trade is $15 billion, three times Israel’s trade with India. China is strategically buying companies having cutting-edge technologies. Mr Netanyahu visited China last year for a second time during his term. Israel balances thus its Asian outreach by creating strategic partnerships with both India and China. That is one more reason to solidify India-Israel relations so that some check is kept on the transfer of sensitive technologies that ultimately will impact the balance of power in South Asia. It’s equally useful to not get misty-eyed over Israel.
India-Israel relations can deliver a “Make in India” success. A comprehensive outreach is needed to tap technologies varying from low-water use practices in agriculture to recycling urban waste water and myriad biotechnological advances, beside artificial intelligence research, etc. While Palestine is no longer a drag, the new animosity between Iran and the Saudi-led Sunni alliance, supported if not encouraged by the US, must be kept in mind. India-Israel trade is a meagre $5 billion roughly, but largely evenly balanced. Penetrating a sophisticated market like Israel is tough. Its new and huge Mediterranean gas field finds liberates it from any energy dependency. That, however, also opens up another area of interest to India. All told, it’s thus a good time to say “Shalom, PM Netanyahu”.