Analysis: The Indo-Israeli partnership: no more sneaking around
India’s Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj is paying an official visit to Israel this week, the third high profile Indian visit to Israel in less than two years, a reflection of the new normal that is India's deepening engagement with the Jewish state.
This is the minister's first visit to the country since assuming office some 18 months ago. But Swaraj is no stranger to Israel. She has been the Chairperson of the Indo-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group, and had visited the country previously. Since assuming office she also met Israeli officials on the sidelines of multilateral meets.
Importantly, this is the third high profile visit from India since the BJP-led government of Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, following the visit of President Pranab Mukherjee last year and that of Home Minister Rajnath Singh in 2014. From the Israeli side, the Minister of Agriculture Yair Shamir and Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon - the two priority areas in bilateral relations - have visited India.
The minister's visit is also meant to set the stage for a visit later in the year by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to India, followed one by the Indian prime minister to Israel.
India's outreach to Israel needs to be seen as part of its broader engagement with the Middle East, or what Indians dub “West Asia”. That, in turn, is part of the policy of what analysts call “multi-alignment” - reaching out to all major powers.
Swaraj has already visited a number of Arab countries, senior cabinet ministers have also visited Iran, and Modi recently visited Turkey, after a successful visit to the UAE.
According to the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs, “India’s relations with Israel are part of its engagement with the broader West Asia region and are independent to its relations with any country in the region.”
“It is high time that India stopped looking over its shoulders each time it engages with Israel,” said senior analyst and founding director of Carnegie India, Dr. C. Raja Mohan. “That is what the Modi government is doing - putting an end to the furtiveness of the relationship that had prevailed in the past.”
India's relationship with Israel had been marked by a certain secrecy, a policy previous governments were inclined to pursue. Even though bilateral relations had developed in leaps and bounds since full diplomatic relations were established in 1992, they were kept well below the radar. Only domestic politics could have explained it, since all major powers, including those like China and Russia, pursued a robust relationship with both Israel and the Arab world.
In general, India had kept its engagement with West Asia to a minimum, in spite of the region's tremendous strategic importance. Dr. Mohan points out that during his decade-long tenure as prime minister, Modi's predecessor Manmohan Singh visited the region only five times, of which two were for the summits of the group of non-aligned nations.
Indians now understand that Israel forms a major pillar in the country's regional outreach, along with Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and is central to India's defense and military strategy. Moreover, geo-political shifts no longer make relations with Israel contingent on Arab approval.
“Engaging with Israel is critical to India's counter terrorism strategy. It is even more important today, given the targeting of India by the Islamic State organization. Israel's intelligence on terror groups in the Middle East is second to none. It is an existential question for Tel Aviv”, says Maj. Gen. (retired) Dipankar Banerjee, a senior strategic analyst with the autonomous think tank, Forum for Strategic Initiatives.
The recent terrorist attack on the Indian air force base in Punjab state proved again that while India is well prepared for conventional warfare, it still lacks skills for urban warfare and tackling cross-border terror - both areas in which Israel had acquired significant prowess.
“We have substantial ongoing defense cooperation with Israel across a wide spectrum, which cannot be disclosed openly”, Banerjee adds.
The recent successful testing by the Indian Navy of the Barak 8 missile defense system, which was developed jointly with Israel, is one such cooperation. The Indian defense ministry hailed it as a “quantum jump in air defense capability”.
And with the current chaos in the region stretching from India to the Mediterranean, few will disagree that the two countries stand out as islands of (even if imperfect) democracy, internal stability, and knowledge centers. Defense and counterterrorism are but one aspect of the bilateral ties, along with agriculture that has emerged as a major area of cooperation.
So while Swaraj will first visit the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank - reflecting India’s commitment to the Palestinians - there are few detractors to the understanding that deepening the multi-faceted ties with Israel is in India's national interest.
Aditi Bhaduri is an award-winning journalist & researcher based in New Delhi.
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