India’s new Modi government should prioritize its relationship with Israel for defense purposes but maintain ties with Arab countries.
With his trip in early 2017 to celebrate 25 years of full diplomatic relations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will become the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. Modi has shared a long relationship with the Israeli government. During his electoral campaign, the International Business Times labelled Modi “Israel’s best friend in South Asia,” and Israel’s ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, described the historically evolving relationship with India as “more visible” since Modi gained power. Modi should maintain relations with Arab allies but continue prioritizing relations with Israel. A strong relationship with Israel will strengthen India’s defense and technological capabilities and help India become a world power.
Israel and India established full diplomatic relations in 1992 and maintain strong relations through trade and defense coordination. Trade has grown from $200 million in 1992 to over $5 billion in 2015, with India becoming Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia, after China. Today, the countries are negotiating a free trade agreement and collaborating on counterterrorism, defense, agriculture, and water and energy. Both combat cross-border terrorism and Islamic extremism, and the Indian external intelligence agency collaborates with Mossad. Modi’s ascendancy to power in 2014 increased this defense relationship. Since 2014, India has purchased $662 million of arms, making it the world’s largest buyer of Israeli weaponry.
Israel has been both a historically consistent ally and a valuable security partner for India. Israeli arms sales to India continued and increased even when other major states curbed their technological exports to retaliate against India’s 1998 nuclear tests. India used Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles to gather essential imagery about Pakistani positions during the Kargil War in 1999. More recently, former Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni stated that “if they need us we will help India” after the 26 November 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Strengthening ties with Israel may have negative consequences for India’s relations with Palestine and the Arab world. India did not officially recognize the State of Israel until 1950. Indian politicians initially opposed Israel because of fear of losing the Muslim vote within the country and angering the large Indian diaspora in the Arab states. India also relied on its Arab allies for oil. Although India has successfully pursued independent diplomatic relations with these conflicting countries, balancing relations with Israel and the Arab world is becoming more difficult. India identifies with the Palestinian struggle and Arab solidarity, but strategic interests and security threats drew India closer to Israel. Recently, India’s two abstentions from the United Nations vote calling on Israel to face the International Criminal Court for war crimes shocked Palestinians. The vote is viewed as a departure from India’s historical support of Palestine.
The Indian government’s recent preference towards relations with Israel also stems from the Arab countries’ lack of support against Pakistani-sponsored terrorism in India's northernmost state of Kashmir. The Arab world has not pressured Pakistan into controlling this cross-border insurgency and has firmly supported Pakistan rather than India. The Arab countries used the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to build support for Islamabad and jihad groups in Kashmir. Given the lack of Arab support, relations with Arab states should not delay India’s strengthening relations with Israel.
India must recognize that growing closer to Israel could compromise internal security if its large Muslim population does not see a strategic benefit from the Israeli alliance. However, the expansion of the defense and technology relationship between the two partners must continue despite this concern. The recent cross-border terrorist strikes into India highlight the importance of having a strategic defense partner. Strengthening the defense relationship will allow India to build the defense capabilities needed to make it a major power.
The Indian government should start enhancing ties with Israel by cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that hinders investment. The Indian government recently lifted a ban on Israeli Military Industries. Although Israeli defense companies are keen to bring defense technologies into India, the multi-layered approval process and delayed decision-making is still a major barrier. India must create a special India-Israel defense corridor to develop this partnership and remove hurdles that stagnate defense cooperation. Adopting a more direct route would facilitate the transfer of advanced defense technology through a clearly defined government to government agreement similar to U.S. Foreign Military Sales. A more direct route would facilitate weapons transfer as it would be "less cumbersome, much faster and more importantly less controversial." This direct sale between governments is expected to become the norm for future defense procurements.
The Indian government must cautiously appeal to both India’s Arab allies and Israel but prioritize relations with Israel to achieve India’s future goals. Recent global terrorism forces India to prioritize an increase in defense capabilities and technology. Israel owns advanced defense technology and is willing to provide it to India. India’s need for defense capabilities is more important than its sensitivities and constraints in relation to the Arab world. The Arab world cannot fulfill India's void in defense preparedness, but Israel can. Given India's size and influence in the region, the inflow of sophisticated defense technology will allow India to realize its ambition to play a larger role in the region by giving it leverage to become influential in its volatile neighborhood. By continuing to foster the defense relationship between Israel and India, India will be on a path to gain global power.
Shantanu Roy-Chaudhury is a final year History Honours student at Hindu College, Delhi University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.