Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi warmly greets his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the airport in New Delhi on January 14.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits India just half a year after the first historic trip of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel (July 2017). These visits reflect the significant expansion in relations between the two countries that has taken place since the establishment of full diplomatic relations in 1992.
Since Modi came to power in May 2014, his Bharatiya Janata Party government has shed its predecessors' reservations regarding India's ties with Israel. Noteworthy, Modi's trip to Israel was not "balanced" with a visit to the Palestinian Authority, indicating that India has decoupled its relations with Israel from its historical commitment to the Palestinian issue. India has even occasionally refrained from joining the automatic majority against Israel in international fora. The two states decided to focus on the bilateral relationship.
The strategic glue consists of high levels of threat perception and a common strategic agenda. Both have waged major conventional wars against their neighbors and have experienced low‐intensity conflict and terror, as they are both involved in protracted conflicts characterized by complex ethnic and religious components not always well understood by outsiders. Weapons of mass destruction are in the hands of their rivals.
Israel and India are both involved in protracted ethno-religious conflicts not well understood by outsiders.
Both regard parts of the Arab world as hubs for Islamic extremism – a common threat. Moreover, India fears the Pakistani nuclear arsenal might ultimately fall into the hands of Islamic radicals, while Israel sees the mix of Islamic zeal in Iran with nuclear ambitions as an existential threat. The offshoots of ISIS threaten the stability of Egypt and Jordan – Israel's neighbors – and are increasingly sources of concern in South and Southeast Asia.
Indeed, the first paragraph of the India-Israel joint statement issued at the end of Modi's visit in Israel states that that the friendship between the two states has been raised to "a strategic partnership." Modi explained, "Israel and India live in complex geographies. ... We are aware of strategic threats to regional peace and stability. ... Prime Minister Netanyahu and I agreed to do much more together to protect our strategic interests."
Washington is important for Jerusalem and New Delhi. India, a major player in the international system, has improved relations with the U.S. Nevertheless, New Delhi's links with Jerusalem have the potential to smooth over some of the difficulties in dealing with the U.S. Working with Israel fits into Modi's plan to deepen relations with the U.S. given the U.S.‐Israel friendship.
The American Jewish organizations valued the importance of India for the U.S. and for Israel, as well as the potential advantages of nurturing good relations with the Indian community in America, whose political power is on the rise. The Jewish and Indian lobbies worked together to gain the George W. Bush administration's approval for Israel's sale of the EL/W-2090 Phalcon airborne early warning and control system to India. In the fall of 2008, Jewish support was important in passing through the U.S. Congress the U.S.‐India nuclear deal, which allowed India access to nuclear technology for civilian use despite its not being a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The perceived decline of the U.S. and the rise of China are strengthening the strategic glue between India and Israel.
Two strategic developments of the 21st century are likely to strengthen the strategic glue between India and Israel: the perceived decline of the U.S. and the rise of China. In the Middle East, the American reluctance to get involved in the region helped Iran's quest for hegemony. U.S. weakness inevitably has ripple effects in other parts of the globe. Indeed, Asian states view the declining American role with concern.
The Indian‐Israeli nexus has also various Indian Ocean implications, particularly in response to China's growing presence. The Indian Ocean, where India is an important actor, has become an area of growing interest for Israel because of its apprehensions about Iran and Pakistan.
Gradually, India has overcome its reservations about security cooperation with Israel. It is not only on counterterrorism, which preceded the establishment of diplomatic relations and has been conducted away from the public eye. The November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks underscored the need for better counterterrorism preparations in India and elicited greater cooperation with Israeli agencies.
Arms supply and technology transfer have also become important components in the bilateral relationship. Israel's export policy is flexible, meeting Indian demands for technological transfer and offsets. The India-Israel Joint Statement hailed the defense cooperation, noting that India and Israel agreed that "future developments in this sphere should focus on joint development of defense products, including transfer of technology from Israel, with a special emphasis on the 'Make in India' initiative."
India has purchased high-end defense equipment from Israel, including Phalcon radar Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (left, mounted on a Russian transport aircraft) and the ground-based missile-defense Green Pine radar (right).
As result of the successful overtures of its military industries, Israel has become the third‐largest arms supplier to India. Over the years, New Delhi purchased Israeli advanced radar and communications equipment and turned also to Israel for portable battlefield radars, night warfare vision equipment, and electronic fences to improve border monitoring. A long list of Israeli military items, such as ammunition, UAV parts, and missiles (Spike anti‐armor, the Python‐4 air‐to‐air, naval Barak 8 surface‐to‐air) are being produced in India.
Recent examples of purchase include a contract for two additional Phalcon systems, valued at $1 billion, signed during the November 2016 visit of President Reuven Rivlin to India. Additional large contracts were concluded before Modi's visit to Israel last year. The occasional difficulties in implementing the Indian military procurement contracts do not obscure the general trend of close cooperation. These deals are part of India's $250 billion plan to modernize the armed forces by 2025 amid tensions with neighbors China and Pakistan.
India's importance is growing as the world's economic center of gravity moves to Asia and the Pacific Rim.
For Israel, good relations with India reflect an awareness of structural changes in the international system as the center of gravity moves to Asia and the Pacific Rim. India is an extremely important protagonist that requires Israel's utmost attention.
While national security issues, including defense contracts, are an important facet of the bilateral relations, it is only one component. The joint statement mentions a myriad of agreements in the civilian sphere: space, water management, agriculture, science and technology. In addition, the two countries decided to create a $40 million innovation fund to allow Indian and Israeli enterprise to develop innovative technologies and products with commercial application.
Netanyahu values very much Israel's relations with Asia, particularly India. His visit will be an opportunity to gauge the progress made in the bilateral relationship, overcome the blocks hindering the implementation of the agreements signed during the Modi visit and further cement India's strategic ties with the Jewish state. Netanyahu will adopt once more the salesman role and try to expand economic relations between the two countries and promote Israel's image as a technological giant and an important member of the international community.
Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum.