Monday, July 10, 2017

Israel and India: A Match Made in Heaven or a Marriage of Convenience?

Political alliances and diplomatic relationships have a funny way of ebbing and flowing, evolving with the times. The relationship between Israel and India seems to be a good example of that. Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the state of Israel. This visit was significant because Modi was the first sitting Prime Minister of India to do so. Part of Modi's visit was to sign $4.3 billion in agreements, thereby bolstering relations between the two countries. You would think that the two countries would have had more solidified relations by now. After all, Israel and India are democratic, non-Muslim majority countries surrounded by authoritarian regimes. They have both experienced rule under the heel of British colonialism. Both are countries marred by terror, and can better understand the other's national security needs.

At the same time, we have to remember that India has not always gotten along with Israel. Far from it. India was the first non-Muslim majority country to recognize Palestine back in the 1980s. India did not even have any formal diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992, which is 42 years after recognizing Israel. Part of it is that India could be sensitive about colonialism, even the appearance of it (let's remember that Palestine is not "occupied" or there is not apartheid in Palestine, which is why I say "appearance of it"). I think that the major drive behind past bilateral relations is the fact that India has a substantial Muslim population. Latest Indian Census data has Muslims as 14.7 percent of the population, or about 172 million people. In more recent times, India's left-of-center Congress Party limited diplomatic relations with Israel from 2004 to 2014. Fortunately for India and Israel, if Modi's latest visit reminds us of anything, it's that bilateral relations are in a much more positive direction (see India's Ministry of External Affairs brief here).

The first positive aspect is that of defense. India is Israel's biggest arms market. In April, India signed a $2 billion contract with Israel to provide India with missile defense and cyber-technology. Considering that Israel only received $599 million last year in defense contracts, this tripling of defense contract payments represents a trend in Israel providing more defense services and expertise to India as India guards its border with Pakistan.  For more on the history of Indio-Israeli military relations, click here or here.

Second is that of trade. Looking at UN Comtrade data (India Department of Commerce estimates below), trade flows between Israel and India plateaued in 2013. However, there are ways that Indio-Israeli trade relations can improve. Israel has expertise in  defense, technology, and agriculture and water preservation. India has, amongst other assets, a large manufacturing presence and considerable human capital. These countries can develop collaborative projects on agriculture and water technologies. As many as 12 strategic pacts amongst Israeli and Indian CEOs were made as a result of this trip, which would amount of $4.3 billion in business. Tourism has also grown recently. If the two nations can keep to its goal of increasing bilateral trade by 25 percent over the next four years, we should expect to see trade flows between them rise significantly in upcoming years.

Third is that of ideology. Modi and Netanyahu have similar ideologies with free-market capitalism, nationalism, and religious conservatism shaping cultural norms. Being ideologically on the same page will make it easier for bilateral relations to improve, especially given their history. The evolving bromance between Modi and Netanyahu will help developing soft power between the two nations.

Speaking of which, this moment shows Israel's improved diplomatic relations (see more here). Modi broke away from the country's history, and while imperfect, has been able to increase bilateral agreements since his regime. Netanyahu has been able to break away from diplomatic isolation and diversify its relations, which is important because a) certain prominent European elements are becoming more antagonistic to Israel due to increased support to Palestine and the BDS movement, and b) non-Western powers are gaining clout in an increasingly multilateral world. We have seen India be less antagonistic towards Israel, particularly when changing its stance in the United Nations. Normally, India would vote against Israel in various UN Resolutions, but it has lately abstained to better maintain a relationship with Israel while not upsetting Palestine. Having this soft power and developing goodwill will not just minimize antagonism towards Israel, but show the greater world that Israel is a positive force in the world that has and will continue to contribute to the betterment of mankind.

The question that lingers is whether this is a new beginning for Indio-Israeli relations. The outcome remains to be seen. There are some factors limiting the potential for success. One is that India has strong ties to Iran, which remains problematic since Israel's main enemy is Iran. Another has to do with militaristic strategy. While Israel is a help to India's defense system, Israel and India don't have an explicit common enemy, which makes it more difficult to ally. Also, Israel has developed stronger ties to China, which presents a problem since China and India aren't exactly getting along these days.

The other big impediment is India's stance of attempting to keep both Israel and Palestine content, especially in light of India's large Muslim population. I understand India's pragmatism in trying to placate both sides to maximize its position in the region. However, as India develops rapport with Israel, it will prove increasingly difficult. Case in point, Palestine was not thrilled with Modi's visit to Israel. Although Modi did receive Mahmoud Abbas in India back in May, Modi opted not to visit Abbas during his trip. More to the point, Modi did not chide Netanyahu about Palestine or mention negotiations for a two-state solution.

Even with these obstacles, I see great potential for Israel and India to grow. Arab countries are losing clout due to decreased influence of oil. Also, Sunni countries are trading more with Israel to counter Iran and other Islamist threats, which means India will gain less backlash from the international community when it improves Indio-Israeli relations. If these two countries want to solidify relations on a more long-term basis, they need to collaborate and develop as much trade interdependence as possible. That way, if there is a significant regime change in either country, it will be more difficult for India to backtrack to its former antagonism towards Israel. If the Modi and Netanyahu regimes continue to foster relations and deepen ties, what I would guess is that these bilateral relations will transcend a marriage of convenience and one in which the two nations can become great allies.

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