India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he gives a speech in front of students at the University of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s completion of one year in power, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj announced that Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to visit Israel in the coming year. Ever since Modi assumed office as prime minister, there has been speculation that he will be the first Indian head of state to visit Israel.
Modi’s close ties with Israel date back to his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat wherein he expanded trade relations between the two countries to include partnerships in solar power, pharmaceuticals, water management, water recycling plants, agro-research and advanced agriculture technologies. Israel emerged as a key partner in facilitating Gujarat’s tremendous economic growth under Modi’s leadership.
Even though India’s defense, security and economic relations with Israel have been on the upswing since the 1990s, Modi has been credited with elevating the strategic dimension of India-Israel partnership by bringing relations “out of the closet.”
His outreach to Israel facilitated greater diplomatic engagement between senior-level officials of both countries. Modi set the ball rolling by scheduling a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2014. Sushma Swaraj met with her Israeli counterpart, minister Avigdor Liberman, in New York. In an effort to cultivate ties beyond government officials, Modi also met with the American Jewish Committee before his address to the India diaspora in the US.
India welcomed Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in February 2015, who oversaw the conclusion of a joint venture to develop and manufacture advanced missile systems between India’s Kalyani Group and Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The defense exposition in Bengaluru, where the Kalyani-Rafael deal was announced, is expected to lead to the conclusion of defense deals “worth billions of dollars.”
This deal also comes at the heels of a number of other recent defense ventures including the $3 billion collaboration in the production of high-tech systems for Indian troops and the $143 million deal for the purchase of Barak-1 missiles.
Israel has been quick to accept and support Modi’s reform agenda for the Indian economy. When in India, Minister Ya’alon pledged his support for Modi’s “Make in India” initiative by providing technological support and assistance for the development of the defense, security and agricultural sectors in India.
It has been reported that the Kalyani-Rafael group will boost the Make in India initiative by being the first to “utilize the raised foreign investment limit” as announced in August 2014. The Kalyani group will hold 51 percent interest in the joint venture.
Nicolas Blarel, author of “The evolution of India’s Israel policy: Continuity, Change and Compromise since 1992” writes that Israel’s strategic importance to India became evident after Jerusalem’s assistance in the Kargil conflict with Pakistan in 1999. At the height of the crisis, Israel not only provided crucial surveillance and military equipment, but also demonstrated the prowess of its defense technology.
Structural deficiencies in India’s defense establishment, which were highlighted during the conflict, elevated Israel’s importance as a security partner.
As India’s security ties with Israel gather momentum under Modi, they have also coincided with Israel’s greater emphasis on cultivating ties with Eastern states. Even though Israel’s economic relations with India, China, South Korea and Japan have always been strong, growing distance from traditional allies like the US is prompting Netanyahu to elevate the strategic dimension of these partnerships. While budget cuts and US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan have dropped Israeli arms exports to Europe and America, trade with Asian partners has increased to $600 million, more than with the US.
Thus, the time is ripe for India to capitalize on this space. It is significant that in her remarks at the press conference, Swaraj suggested that she will be visiting Israel, Palestine and Jordan, however it was not clear whether or not Modi will restrict his visit to only Israel. Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Israel in November 2014 was limited to Israel and did not include the Palestinian Authority. It is clear that the Modi government has broken with tradition from the customary Indian policy of clubbing senior-level visits to Israel with the PA and Jordan. Former external affairs minister SM Krishna’s visit to Israel in 2012 included the PA and Jordan and was termed as a regional visit.
The Modi government has, however, denied assertions of a “fundamental departure” from its support to the Palestinian cause. When asked whether the government was leaning toward Israel in its West Asia policy, Swaraj asserted that the government’s policy has not undergone any change, especially with regard to the Palestinian issue. However, Modi’s engagement with the PA has been severely limited.
Political contact was limited to Swaraj’s meeting with PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on the sidelines of the Asian African Conference 2015 in Jakarta and the UNGA in New York. She also attended the NAM Committee on Palestine in New York in September 2014. At the meeting Swaraj reiterated India’s commitment to the cause of the Palestinian people as a core feature of India’s foreign policy.
Minister Swaraj indicated that there are no other visits by Modi scheduled to the West Asian region apart from Turkey for the G20 Summit and possibly Iran for the Non-Alignment Movement Summit.
Until now, Modi has also not engaged with any other regional leaders except for Netanyahu and then Saudi crown prince and now king Salman bin Abdulaziz, whom he met at the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Australia in November 2014. Thus, it is evident that Israel has greater priority over other West Asian states in India’s policy agenda.The author is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, India. She is a researcher for the West Asia Studies Program at ORF. Her research focuses on India’s relations with the Middle East.