The widening and deepening of Israel-India ties - analysis

Multiple Indian officials have visited Israel in the last few weeks - where are relations headed?

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at the beginning of the COP26 conference in Glasgow on Monday. (photo credit: GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at the beginning of the COP26 conference in Glasgow on Monday.
(photo credit: GPO)

Another week, another visit by a senior Indian official.

This time it was Chief of Staff Gen. Manoj Mukund Naravane, who arrived on Sunday for his first visit to Israel – his country’s largest arms supplier after Russia – since he moved into his position in 2019.

Naravane’s arrival followed a visit two weeks ago by the director-general of the Indian Defense Ministry, Ajay Kuma, to take part in the 15th meeting of the India-Israel Joint Working Group on bilateral defense cooperation. Kumar’s visit followed by a little more than a week the visit by Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishanka.

And in the midst of all that, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met on November 2 with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.

“Our goal is to continue the path that you paved with my predecessor, and ensure that our two nations work together on innovation, technology, space, security, agriculture, food technologies, and of course climate-related technologies,” Bennett said.

 PM Naftali Bennett with Indian PM Narendra Modi at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO) PM Naftali Bennett with Indian PM Narendra Modi at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)

Judging from the pace of the visits from New Delhi, Modi is very much on board.

The Indian prime minister, who won a second term in office in 2019 and is expected to contest for a third term in 2024, revolutionized Israel-India ties within months of taking office in 2014, by bringing the Indian-Israeli relationship very much out of the closest and instituting a policy called de-hyphenation.

What de-hyphenation meant was simple: India’s relationship with Israel would be a stand-alone, not related or dependent on India’s relationship with the Palestinians, or progress on the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic track. This would no longer be a relationship between India and Israel-Palestine, but between India and Israel, and India and the Palestinians.

This de-hyphenation was most apparent in July 2017, when Modi came to Israel but did not go to the Palestinian Authority (he went there for a day in 2018, shortly after hosting then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for six days in India). This was a clear sign that India would no longer have its relationship with Israel be held hostage by a lack of movement on the diplomatic track.

Modi, head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was intent – unlike his rival Congress Party – on moving the relationship with Israel ahead full-throttle and in full view of the world. In Netanyahu – who was in the midst of a furious drive to widen Israel’s relations around the globe – he found a keen and more than willing partner.

To understand the degree to which Modi has succeeded in decoupling India’s relationship with Israel from the Palestinians, all that was necessary was to read any number of reports in the Indian media over the last month about the visits here by the senior Indian officials.

While in the past stories about Indian-Israel ties or these types of visits inevitably discussed Indian efforts to balance its ties with Israel with ties with the Palestinians, and how this was a sensitive issue for India because of its large Muslim population, this narrative has increasingly fallen out of the reports.

Instead, new concepts are creeping in, such as “minilateralism” and a Mideast “Quad.”

Minilateralism is an idea whereby a limited number of countries band together to pursue common goals. The Mideast “Quad” in this context refers to a minilateral alliance possibly in the making: Israel, India, the UAE and the US.

This idea was given a huge boost on October 19 during Jaishankar’s visit to Jerusalem, when he and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid were joined by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan for a quadrilateral zoom conference.

This prompted comparisons in India to a quadrilateral alliance that has emerged in the Pacific – Australia, India, Japan and the US – designed to counter India’s major threat: China.

The Israel/UAE/India/US quadrilateral, according to some accounts in the Indian press, was a counter-balance to China in the Mideast.

Whether this is true – neither Israel nor the UAE has the same concerns about China as does the US and India – developing this alliance was a major focus of the visit for parts of the Indian press, rather than what India’s ties with Israel will do to its relations with the Arab world – something that shows the degree to which Modi has de-coupled India’s ties with Israel from India’s ties with the Palestinians.

Within seven years, the conversation inside India has shifted from whether and how close India should get with Israel, to how these ties can be leveraged with other countries to counter China.

As Indira Bagchil, The Times of India’s diplomatic editor, wrote last month, “Israel is arguably India’s most trusted partner in the world, sometimes even closer than the US.”

Jaishankar himself articulated a similar sentiment during his visit, telling business leaders and government officials that Israel is in some ways India’s “most trusted and innovative partnership.”

The current slew of high-profile Indian visits, and the agreements being discussed and drawn up during them, attest to this. This flurry of Israel-India activity shows that while the relationship Netanyahu developed with Modi was an important catalyst to moving Israeli-Indian ties forward, the relationship was in no way dependent on Netanyahu.

When Netanyahu visited India in 2018, Israeli officials spoke of a sense of urgency in speeding things along quickly, not knowing whether Modi would survive the 2019 election (he did, handily), and wanting to take advantage of his time in power to entrench the relationship as deeply and as speedily as possible.

Modi still remains in power, though Netanyahu does not, and the visits of the last few weeks are laying the institutional framework to the relationship – including negotiations for a free-trade agreement, and a 10-year cooperation plan under discussion to identify new areas in defense cooperation between the two countries – that will outlast Modi.

This is critical because even if Modi is succeeded by someone without his pro-Israel sentiment, it will be much more difficult to unravel what Modi put into motion once these frameworks are in place. The goal is simple: deepen and broaden the ties across the board so that when there is a government change in India, the relationship with Israel will be so widely accepted and beneficial in India that no leader would want to turn back the clock.