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India-Israel Relations: A Fantastic Start but a Tough Road Ahead

In a bid to strengthen India-Israel ties, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu met twice, first in Israel and then in India, over six months in 2017 and early 2018. Modi’s visit to Israel was a first by an Indian PM since the Jewish state was established in 1948 and before Netanyahu, the previous Israeli leader who toured India was Ariel Sharon in 2003. Thus, it’s pretty clear that both Modi and Netanyahu are committed to furthering stronger ties between the two nations. Also, it isn’t much of a secret that both Modi and Netanyahu share cordial personal relations. Since both leaders share such good rapport with one another, one may assume that both nations will take quick strides in furthering economic and strategic relations. However, that is hardly the reality. A new chapter in the India and Israel relations might be off to a fantastic start, but the road ahead for both countries is certainly not going to be easy.

Beyond ideological similarities between their leaders, there is little that India and Israel have in common. On the one hand, Israel has expressed its concerns over the increasing dominance of Iran in West Asia. The United States (US), a staunch ally of Israel, further restricted Iran’s nuclear growth by signing the Iran nuclear deal. Its attempts to cripple Iran’s growth by destabilising their nuclear plants and neutralising their growing industries through cyber warfare is no secret. The recent armed conflict between Iranian and Israeli forces is enough evidence to suggest that tensions run high on both sides. On the other hand, India sees Iran as a strategic partner in West Asia and seeks to counter China’s dominance in the Indian Ocean by establishing itself in that region through Iran. India is committed to the development of Chabahar port, Iran’s only oceanic port, to establish a secure naval base in the region and to seek passage to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. On Chabahar port, Iran had asked the United States to respect its territorial sovereignty and not interfere into matters with respect to the development of the port.

The Chinese issue is yet another matter where India and Israel stand divided. Israel has welcomed China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese companies play a significant role in modernising Israel’s public infrastructure, including construction of two new major Israeli ports at Haifa and Ashdod, developing Tel Aviv’s underground metro rail system, among others. These developments fall under the direct purview of BRI. Various Israeli companies have promoted their advanced technology in China, where they will, essentially, find bigger markets to establish and promote their innovation. Chinese president Xi Jinping and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have announced the new “Comprehensive Innovative Partnership” during that latter’s visit to China in June 2017. However, BRI does not find favour with India. Since part of the proposed BRI route runs through Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, India sees its construction as a threat to its sovereignty, especially when China and Pakistan, share more than cordial relations. India has time and overwhelmingly expressed its concerns over the rising dominance of China in South Asia. However, Israel hasn’t shared similar concerns and seems committed to furthering its partnerships with China in various sectors.

The Israel-Palestinian matter, which is far from being resolved, is an age-old issue where India and Israel have held contrasting viewpoints. While India’s affinity towards Palestine is well-known, it was further reinforced during the recent United Nations (UN) General Assembly vote where India voted against recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel which caused the UN to bring forth a motion against Trump’s decision. The motion was backed by 128-member nations, including India. India’s interests in Palestine are not without reason. It sees Israel’s occupation of that territory as a reflection of its ongoing conflict in Kashmir, where Pakistan and China, have administration and military control over certain regions, Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai Chin, respectively. Thus, backing Israel’s claim for an independent state will be a detriment to India’s own concerns in Kashmir.

India’s proximity to Israel also depends on the relationship the US shared with India. While Barack Obama was the President, India-US relation was making progressive strides. However, after Trump has assumed the Oval Office, there has been a certain shift in the nature of the relationship between the two countries, though the White House feels differently. Trump is yet to pay an official visit to India to further its bilateral relations and there have been instances in the past where he has indirectly attempted to jest the Indian Prime Minister.

The order of world politics is certainly changing. Modi sees a likely friend in Israel. However, nurturing that friendship is going to be no mean feat for India. The growing proximity between Israel and China is a matter of concern for India and the shift in India-US relations isn’t exactly helping India’s cause for Israel relations. The Palestine issue, which seems to have no solution in the foreseeable future, is yet another obstacle which India will find hard to overcome in its quest for a strong friendship with Israel. Time is on Narendra Modi and Netanyahu’s side, though. Both leaders are expected to retain their positions as heads of state in the upcoming elections which will give them more time and space to work out this unlikely friendship better.

Picture Credits : Press Trust of India



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