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Israel’s evolving relationship with India- A geostrategic game changer?

When Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel visited New York for the UN General Assembly earlier this year, he went out of his way to try and meet a foreign counterpart. Perhaps surprisingly, this other foreign politician was not President Obama, but the newly elected Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. This seminal event has not gone unnoticed in the larger media, as the evolving relationship between the world’s largest democracy and the Jewish state has significant implications in the military and diplomatic spheres throughout the MENA and South Asian regions, especially as support for Israel shrinks in the West.

Although it has long had a closeted relationship with Israel for security reasons- Tel Aviv is India’s fourth biggest arms supplier -politicians in Delhi have generally not tried to bring this relationship out in to the open, fearful of losing the influential ‘’minority’’ Muslim vote. However with Modi’s ascent to power in India, the rules of the game may have changed, as the Hindu nationalist BJP party which he leads is much less interested in chasing the Muslim vote. In fact it was under a BJP government that a previous Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, last visited India in 2004.

Naturally the support of a major rising power such as India would be highly beneficial to the Israelis, increasingly closeted on all sides by Islamist extremist groups, even as periodic wars with Hamas sap support for it in the once friendly West, particularly in Europe. It is also the case that India presents a vast market for Israel, not only in arms but agricultural technologies, which would significantly benefit that section of the Indian populace which consists of impoverished farmers. Israeli strengths in defence, agriculture and other high tech areas naturally complement India’s traditional strengths of a large manpower reserve, which is precisely what Israel lacks.

It is precisely this market, in addition to India’s political credibility as a major Asian power, which appeals to Israel so much. As mentioned before, India is the largest importer of Israeli arms, from small arms such as Tavor rifles to electronic warfare gear and early warning AWACS planes. However PM Modi has emphasised a ‘Make in India’ program which includes the manufacture and eventual design of high tech defence gear in India. The transfer of Israeli manufacturing technology to India would considerably benefit Israel as well, resulting in a potentially new supply chain free of political pressures from Europe- which has threatened to sanction Israel over the Palestine negotiations issue- and the US, which has an increasingly strained relationship with Israel over much the same issues.

This would have strategic implications for Asia as well. India is currently locked in a regional, albeit imbalanced, Cold War with Pakistan, as well as an emerging rivalry with the fast modernising China. Advanced Israeli military technology transfer to India has the potential to transform Indian strategic capabilities vis-à-vis it’s Asian adversaries, in important spheres such as ballistic and cruise missile defence. Israel provides radars to India for its’ missile defence program, helping give it the ability to shoot down Pakistani and Chinese ballistic missiles. Furthermore, the Indian and Israeli navies recently tested a Surface to Air missile which the two nations jointly developed, highlighting the potential for development of effective weaponry together. Such co-operation will help both militaries as they tackle emerging threats to their respective homelands.

As two democracies with a history of friction with the Muslim world, there is much benefit to be gained from greater co-operation. Recently, India’s parliament, led by the ruling BJP, refused to censure Israeli action in Gaza- a sea change from previous Indian responses to Middle East events, which have tended to be pro-Palestinian. The exchange of intelligence on an increasingly common threat of pan-national Islamist terrorism would obviously benefit both nations greatly. Both India and Israel have suffered disproportionately from terrorism, and had to suffer the further ignominy of (frequently) liberal Western commentators blaming their own policies for becoming the victims of terrorism, in Kashmir and Palestine respectively. This painful experience makes the India-Israel partnership a natural one on top of the strategic issues mentioned above.

In an increasingly unstable and uncertain world, where Islamist terrorism is becoming a greater menace and the West appears to lack the courage and initiative to effect change on the ground, it is important that democracies band together for the protection of their values and their peoples. India and Israel would benefit greatly from increasing the scale and scope of their partnership, to the greatest extent possible. As Prime Minister Netanyahu said after his meeting with Prime Minister Modi in New York, the sky is the limit for co-operation between the two ancient civilisations. It is time for the governments of both nations to strive to make this come true.

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