Modi and Netanyahu May Get Along Great, But There Are Serious Limitations to India-Israel Relations

The Israeli prime minister may want closer ties with India as the situation in Palestine deteriorates, but that's not going to be easy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Twitter/PMO

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Twitter/PMO

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will commence his return visit to India on Sunday, January 14, within six months of Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel. Modi’s trip had been the first visit of an Indian prime minister to the Jewish state, nearly 70 years after the state came into being and 25 years after India established diplomatic ties with it.

The last quarter of a century has seen extraordinary progress in bilateral relations: Israel is now India’s major defence supplier, security partner and source of important technologies in diverse areas including water, agriculture, energy, information technology and innovation. Both prime ministers share an interest in wordplay; hence, Netanyahu has named the “Israel India Innovation Initiative Fund”, I4F, while Modi uses the term “I4I” for “India for Israel and Israel for India”, conveying both mutual personal camaraderie and the solid substance of the relationship in frontier areas.

Prime minister’s programme

Taking a cue from Modi’s sojourn in Israel, Netanyahu’s visit to India will have a variety of engagements which, taken together, will exemplify the depth of the political relationship and the commitment to boost and diversify economic ties, and highlight the joint interest to fight extremism with the visit to Mumbai to commemorate the November 2008 attacks. Netanyahu will also be exposed to India’s popular culture, with a “road-show” along an eight-km drive from Ahmedabad airport to Sabarmati Ashram where the Israeli leader will see some aspects of Gujarat’s street culture.

Also read: India and Israel’s Cyber Security Partnership Could be a Potential Game Changer

This will be topped by Netanyahu’s engagement with Bollywood at an event titled ‘Shalom Bollywood’, at which he will meet the glitterati from cinema and plead with them to shoot their films in Israel, taking advantage of its beautiful landscape and its cinema-friendly weather.

And yet, with so much happening so frequently, both Indian and Israeli commentators just can’t seem to define the bilateral relationship. The conservative Jerusalem Post believes bilateral relations are deep due to several factors: the Arabs have frequently let India down in the past; now, propelled by concerns relating to Iran, many Arab states are seeking ties with Israel; both countries share concerns relating to Islamic extremism and, of course, Israel is the source of state-of-the-art military technology for India.

Affair, not a serious relationship

But the more liberal Israeli paper, Haaretz, is not so sure: under the provocative headline, ‘India Wants an Affair when it Comes to Israel, not a Serious Relationship‘, its opinion writer Oshrit Birvadker has argued that India’s voting record at the UN “shows an embrace of the Palestinian narrative”.

He then criticises Israeli writers for having misread the complexity of India’s ties with Arab and Muslim countries, which had led many of them to fondly anticipate support for Israel on the Jerusalem question at the UN recently. India, he says, today takes balanced positions between Israeli and Palestinian interests, and always takes care to assert its “political independence” on matters of international importance.

Birvadker seems to be on the right track: beyond the warm personal chemistry between the two prime ministers and the substantial bilateral ties that enjoy bipartisan support in Indian political circles, both sides remain pragmatic in their engagement with each other and do not allow sentiment to cloud their decisions.

Chairman of the Centre for Policy Alternatives Mohan Guruswamy, writing just after Modi’s visit to Israel in July last year, had clearly stated: “They [the Israelis] do not do us or anybody any favours. It’s all hard cash and the rest is Israeli guile.” As if to confirm this assessment, a few days before Netanyahu’s arrival, India abruptly cancelled the much-hyped purchase of 8,000 Spike anti-tank missiles from Israel, costing half a billion dollars, in favour of a domestic product (though some media reports suggest that the contract might be revived).

Also read: Modi Was Ill-Advised to Visit Israel. Worse, to Make It a Love Fest

Similarly, M.K. Bhadrakumar has noted the logic of India’s expanding defence and security ties with Israel, but has cautioned that the “aura of romance” surrounding the relationship is unwarranted. He points out that beyond the Palestinian issue, there are several important differences between Indian and Israeli perceptions on matters of national security.

India does not share Israel’s visceral animosity for Iran and does not countenance Israel’s aggressive anti-Iran postures in Syria to the extent of even using al-Qaeda and ISIS elements against the Bashar Assad regime. Again, Israel has welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative sponsored by China and does not share India’s deep concerns relating to the expansion of China’s influence in India’s neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean region.

Above all, India is anxious to see a settlement of the various contentions in the region, many of which are aggravated by Israel’s actions, while Israel on its part shows little interest in engaging constructively with its neighbours and continues to seek backing from Washington for its maximalist agenda in West Asia. In fact, Netanyahu’s visit to India is taking place amidst a serious deterioration in the situation in the occupied territories following President Donald Trump’s announcement in early December that the US recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and that the US embassy would move to Jerusalem at some point.

These developments will worsen the regional security scenario which is already witnessing several conflicts, the breakdown of state, widespread death and destruction, and the two Islamic giants, Saudi Arabia and Iran, poised at the edge of direct conflict. Thus, India has every reason to be deeply concerned about recent Israeli actions in the occupied territories.

Israeli attack on Palestinian aspirations

Thus, taking a cue from the US president, Israel has expanded settlement activity inside Jerusalem by separating Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods that have a high Palestinian population density in order to increase Israel’s demographic control over the city. Following this, the ruling Likud Party’s Central Committee has voted to impose Israeli sovereignty over all the settlements in the occupied West Bank, while the Knesset has passed the ‘United Jerusalem’ law that bans ceding any part of Jerusalem in any future settlement without the support of 80 members of the Knesset.

These three initiatives are highly provocative in that they exhibit a contempt for international opinion which had just a few days earlier voted to condemn the US announcement on Jerusalem; if implemented, they would end all prospects for a viable Palestinian state based on the “two-state” solution. An Arab writer has said that, with these developments, the Arabs would do well to describe Israel and all occupied territories collectively as “Occupied Palestine”.

This is not all. After criticism of Trump’s announcement by the Palestinian community in the occupied territories, the president has angrily retaliated by stopping US contributions to the UN Relief and Works Agency that from 1949 looks after Palestinian refugees of the earlier Arab-Israeli conflicts.

Arab commentators believe that US-Israeli intention is to deny Palestinian refugees the right of return, which is central to the final Israeli-Palestinian settlement, along with Israeli vacation of most occupied territories and the creation of a viable, sovereign state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Thus, within a month of the Trump announcement the prospects of a peace settlement relating to Palestinian rights and aspirations, which Trump had announced would be the “deal of the century”, have come to an end.

These developments affirm that there are serious limitations to India-Israel relations: they will remain transactional in character and never attain the level of a strategic partnership, despite the robust rhetoric of rightwing zealots in India and Israel.

Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, is consulting editor, The Wire.