Israel-India strategic partnership could be game-changer for both - opinion

Building on the close personal relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi, an opportunity exists to elevate the relationship with renewed vigor.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, hug after attending a ceremony at which agreements were signed between the two countries in several sectors, in New Delhi, in 2018.  (photo credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, hug after attending a ceremony at which agreements were signed between the two countries in several sectors, in New Delhi, in 2018.
(photo credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Amid a rapidly changing global and regional landscape, the Israel-India partnership has gained momentum in recent years. With the swearing-in of the new Israeli government, both countries should look to upgrade further their relationship which is only becoming more important.

The economic consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 have revived interest in the energy-rich Middle East, and the rivalry between the US and China has highlighted the key role India can play on the global stage, potentially tipping the balance between the two superpowers. 

The Middle East, too, has been undergoing tectonic changes most clearly demonstrated by the Abraham Accords. India has used the opportunity to increase its regional influence and to strengthen its cooperation with the US by engaging in the I2U2 partnership with Israel and the United Arab Emirates. While sidestepping strategic differences, the focus of the partnership is on furthering regional stability through energizing economic cooperation among the members on technology, new energy, infrastructure, health, space and innovation.

With both Israel and India working to grow their relationships in the Gulf – India’s traditionally good relationships with the Gulf countries having become even stronger over the past eight years – a significant joint task would be to expand regional cooperation through the I2U2, and other groupings. Building on the close personal relationship between prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi, an opportunity exists to elevate the relationship between the two countries with renewed vigor.

A municipal worker cleans the street in front of a bilboard displaying Indian and Israeli flags for PM Netanyahu's visit, Ahmedabad, India, January 2018 (credit: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE)A municipal worker cleans the street in front of a bilboard displaying Indian and Israeli flags for PM Netanyahu's visit, Ahmedabad, India, January 2018 (credit: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE)

Joint innovation for the future

Superpower rivalry is increasingly focused on advanced technologies, with new export restrictions by the US followed by countermeasures taken by China. With both India and Israel being leaders in technology and innovation, they have much to gain from increasing cooperation on technology in what is likely to be an ongoing period of global instability.

India’s expertise and its large and diverse economy complement Israel’s R&D and innovation capabilities. Moreover, by jointly advancing R&D and innovation, Israel and India can create additional opportunities to extend their partnership to other regional countries, especially on water management, counter-terrorism, and new technologies.

The potential for cooperation between India and Israel on hi-tech development is substantial. Big data analysis, artificial intelligence, semiconductors, renewable energies, healthcare and agriculture, are just some of the areas where joint projects can yield significant benefits for both countries, placing them in leadership positions in these fields.

Priority should also be given to advancing the India-Israel Free Trade Agreement (FTA) talks including the services sector. Despite the close relationship, the volume of India-Israel trade has remained below potential, and an FTA would expand it significantly. Indian exports recorded an all-time high of $ 400 billion in 2021. Through FTAs with major countries, India hopes to cross the $1 trillion figure by 2030, including a target of $100 billion for the Middle East region specifically. 

Another point high on the agenda should be to expand engagement and opportunities between the two countries’ tech start-up ecosystems. With over 100 unicorns, India saw 46 unicorns established in 2021 alone, and its start-ups raised more than $42 billion. In the same year, Israel saw 33 unicorns established and raised more than $25 billion. By joining forces, both start-up ecosystems can make significant gains.

Last year’s acquisition of Haifa port by India’s Adani Group paves the way for greater cooperation between India and Israel on large infrastructure projects, providing further opportunities for exploring new synergies between both countries. 

Looking ahead, defense and security ties will continue to be important in the face of growing global instability and uncertainty. But more importantly, it is the issues at the heart of the escalating global technological race, such as 5G networks, which India has begun rolling out with a greater reliance on indigenous technology, and advanced semiconductor production, which could become the base for the future of the burgeoning Israel-India partnership. 

From strategic partners to regional leaders

The signing of the Abraham Accords and India’s growing importance in the region and on the world stage create new avenues for Israel-India cooperation. 

By signing the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with the UAE in a record 88 days, India and the UAE have set an excellent example. Israel and the UAE have followed suit by concluding their own Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Israel, India and the UAE together can take things a step further and envision a trilateral free trade agreement that would benefit the regional economy. 

Indeed, several UAE-Israel-India trilateral business cooperation agreements have been signed recently in the technological spheres, including the joint development and production of a robotic solar cleaning technology and an agreement aiming at establishing India’s first semiconductor manufacturing facility. To accelerate the trend, it will be useful to expand direct flights between Israel and India, including to Bangalore – India’s start-up hub.

The formation of I2U2 (India, Israel, UAE and the US) was a crucial advancement toward enhanced intergovernmental cooperation. The grouping has already announced partnerships in agricultural technology focusing on enhancing food and energy security and infrastructure projects. 

In a rapidly changing global landscape, it is essential to build long-lasting relationships. Trust is particularly important when cooperating on cutting-edge technology and innovation. Robust cooperation on cutting-edge technologies will strengthen both Israel’s and India’s position to play a leading role not only in the Middle East, but in shaping the future in an increasingly multipolar world.

The writer is head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at Reichman University. He previously served as an Australian foreign service officer working on Asian regional security issues, and as a diplomat at the Australian Embassy in Beijing, where he focused on issues related to China’s foreign policy, including in the Middle East.