Over the last two decades, the quantum of military related imports from Israel has steadily increased and it is estimated that India, which buys almost $1 billion worth annually accounts for more than 40 percent of total Israeli defence exports, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor
By C Uday Bhaskar
The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to India (January 14-19) commemorates the 25th anniversary of the opening of an Indian embassy in Tel Aviv in 1992 and will further consolidate an important and strategically distinctive bilateral relationship for both nations. It has had a chequered past since the post World War II birth of both countries but is poised for a pragmatic future trajectory based on shared interests.
With a population of under nine million and a GDP of US $350 billion, Israel is a relatively small nation in comparison to the Indian behemoth with a population of 1.25 billion and a GDP of $2.5 trillion. Yet Israel occupies a very special niche in India’s security framework and has been a supplier of critical military technology. This was illustrated during the 1999 Kargil War when precision-guided ordnance was obtained from Tel Aviv under very challenging circumstances.
The fact that India is among the world’s largest importer of military inventory and that Israel, despite its diminutive size, is a major arms exporter also provides a natural complementarity to the bilateral relationship. Over the last two decades, the quantum of military related imports from Israel has steadily increased and it is estimated that India, which buys almost $1 billion worth annually accounts for more than 40 percent of total Israeli defence exports.
The Netanyahu visit reciprocates that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July 2017, which was the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel. The Modi-Netanyahu personal chemistry was on display during that visit and the two leaders share many characteristics, including a visible political resolve in relation to Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Netanyahu will also be given the Gujarat-special status, a detour to Ahmedabad that Modi accords to certain leaders.
During the July visit, Modi observed that “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.” The joint statement also added: “There can be no justification of acts of terror on any grounds whatsoever.”
While the bilateral with Israel has been loftily described as a "strategic partnership", India’s relations with the Jewish nation cannot be divorced from the larger West Asian geopolitical canvas that has Palestine as a major factor. The Jewish quest for a permanent homeland goes back by over a century and it merits recall that Mahatma Gandhi had opined in 1931:” I can understand the longing of a Jew to return to Palestine, and he can do so if he can without the help of bayonets, whether his own or those of Britain… in perfect friendliness with the Arabs.” This sentiment still shapes the Indian approach to the complex and hopelessly tangled Palestine issue.
India has traditionally supported the Palestine cause on the international stage and has over the years sought to maintain a fine balance as regards its bilateral with Israel in the competing regional politics of West Asia and the Islamic world. It appeared that the BJP-led Modi government had taken a bold decision to remove the hyphenation between Israel and Palestine but it would be misleading to infer that the current dispensation in Delhi has uncritically cast its weight totally with Israel and the USA.
The recent vote at the UN over the Trump declaration as regards Jerusalem saw Delhi voting with the larger global consensus that had censured the US over its announcement. To his credit Netanyahu, on the eve of his India visit, noted that this vote would not materially affect the bilateral. India and Israel are keen to expand the current bandwidth of the trade and economic relations to move beyond military sales and include energy, cyber security and innovation in desert /arid land agriculture among other sectors.
The last leg of the Netanyahu visit will take him to Mumbai and the enormity of the November 2008 terror attack that targeted Chabad House will be appropriately recalled, though justice for the innocent victims - Indian, Israeli and other nationalities remains elusive.
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)