Expanded Israel-India ties start taking shape, after the Netanyahu-Modi bromance

Four-way Zoom call between US, UAE, Israel, and India underlines potential for a regional economic network to counter China’s designs

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi visit the water desalination plant at Olga beach, on July 6, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi visit the water desalination plant at Olga beach, on July 6, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian premier Narendra Modi were famously close, sometimes uncomfortably so.

During Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017, the two leaders waded barefoot together into the surf, the waves gently lapping at the hems of their pants as they talked. The two then sipped drinks and took a drive in a water desalination dune buggy.

To make sure his close friend didn’t forget the experience, Netanyahu later presented Modi with a photograph of their stroll on the beach.

“I say our partnership is a match made in heaven and consecrated on earth,” said Netanyahu when he visited India early the next year.

The hugs and effusive praise the leaders swapped with each other were no whimsical trifle. They reflected a budding strategic partnership between the countries, one that had been growing steadily for two decades.

With Netanyahu out of office, Modi now has to carve out a personal relationship with a new Israeli leadership, the very same individuals who banded together for the purpose of driving Netanyahu out of office.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits in a car with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi after the latter arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, on July 4, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

But all signs indicate that even if one half of the duo is out of power, ties between Israel and India will continue to grow, and may even enjoy a significant boost from the Abraham Accords.

“India and Israel have been drawing closer together for many years, and the future points toward an expansion and even greater convergence of interests,” said Oshrit Birvadker, an India expert at Reichman University in Herzliya. “The series of visits by senior officials is entirely in line with the overall relationship.”

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar wrapped up a five-day swing through Israel, during which he lauded bilateral commercial ties, saying that India regards Israel “in many ways as perhaps our most trusted and innovative partner.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (right) and Indian FM Subrahmanyam Jaishankar speak to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UAE FM Abdullah bin Zayed, on October 18, 2021 (Foreign Ministry)

A day before, Jaishankar extended an invitation from Modi to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to make his first official state visit to India.

“Modi was among the first world leaders to congratulate Bennett on his ascension to the premiership,” noted Birvadker, “and has said that he wants to continue deepening ties.”

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Jaishankar’s visit was a four-way Zoom call he conducted with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Indian FM Subrahmanyam Jaishankar speaks to Indian-Israelis at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, on October 17, 2021. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The officials participating in that virtual meeting were not cobbled together at random. Their countries represent an emerging alliance that can play a central role in India’s — and the region’s — economic future.

The Arab-Mediterranean Corridor

One of India’s biggest challenges comes from its neighbor China, which has been investing heavily in a series of roads, rails and seaports across the globe as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which is designed to capture a far greater share of trade flows from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe.

New Delhi, which sees China’s modern Silk Road scheme as a curb on its own growth and international trade, initially sought to avoid being hemmed in by creating its own corridor to Central Asia via Iran, and then on to Europe.

But the project — known as the International North-South Transit Corridor — has been an utter failure.

With the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, India was presented with a new opportunity to challenge Chinese designs on regional and global trade.

Transportation Minister Israel Katz in front of a map of the proposed rail network, on April 5, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Rail networks being drawn up between Israel and the UAE would allow India to ship goods to the UAE, which would then be spirited by train across Saudi Arabia and Jordan, before crossing into Israel at Beit She’an and then subsequently at Haifa.

From there, goods would be shipped to Greece’s Piraeus port, one of the largest in Europe, from which India would be able to access the entire continent.

Though 300 kilometers (186 miles) of rail remain to be built in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the train link is no fantasy. In March, the Transportation Ministry announced that it had given the green light for a rail line connecting Haifa to Beit She’an to be extended east by several kilometers to the Jordanian border, where a new goods depot would also be built.

“This new connectivity constitutes a strategic paradigm shift of enormous geopolitical consequence that could reshape [India’s] role in the Eurasian economic order,” according to Michael Tanchum of the University of Navarra in Spain, who researches strategic connectivity networks between Asia, Europe and Africa.

And there is already funding available for the project as well. In March, the UAE announced it was setting up a $10 billion investment fund aimed at strategic sectors in Israel. According to Globes, the railway link to Haifa is one of the fund’s flagship projects.

The port of Haifa. on September 13, 2008. (Jorge Novominsky/Flash90)

Goods could reach Europe from Mumbai within 10 days, according to Tanchum — 40 percent quicker than the Suez Canal route.

Still, it must be noted that plans for the rail link have been bandied about for years, and there is no guarantee that the political will and the funding will materialize. Despite a recent thaw, Jordan is still extremely wary of cooperating too closely with Israel on public projects, and the Saudis still do not officially recognize Israel.

Economic ties between the UAE and India are already robust. India is the largest importer of Emirati goods, and the UAE is India’s third-largest trade partner. Emirati companies invested billions of dollars to create the India-UAE Food Corridor last year in order to bolster the Gulf country’s food security.

India aims to become the breadbasket of the Middle East, and Israel is at the center of that ambitious goal. The Foreign Ministry has created 29 Indo-Israel Centers of Excellence to improve yields, water use, and crop diversity.

Indo-Israel Joint Agricultural Program, India, 2008. (MASHAV)

Other countries — especially Greece — are likely to join this emerging partnership. Greece and Israel are already cooperating closely on resource exploitation in the Mediterranean in the face of aggressive Turkish policies and actions.

However, the Arabian-Mediterranean Corridor can’t bypass China entirely, nor does Israel have any interest in doing so.

The newest of Haifa’s three ports is operated by the Chinese Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG). They do not own the terminal, like the Chinese COSCO company does in the port of Piraeus.

“But they do have the ties with the supply chains from China to Europe,” said Tuvia Gering, China expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “This is also a feature that we wanted, to which Israel will become central.”

China cannot prevent Indian or other vessels from reaching Haifa, as Israel’s Shipping and Ports Administration — not SIPG — controls what ships are entering and leaving the country’s ports.

Haifa bay, on April 24, 2018. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“The Indians don’t have to worry much about that aspect,” said Gering.

What’s more, Indian companies can also gain a foothold in Haifa. International bidders are lining up to purchase another Haifa port,  and Adani Ports, an Indian firm, has teamed with Israel’s Gadot Group on their bid.

“It’s not a zero-sum game,” Gering emphasized.

Egypt, a key partner of Israel and Greece in the EastMed Gas Forum, is markedly less thrilled about the idea, as it would reduce the importance of the Suez Canal, one of its only sources of foreign currency.

The emergent axis is in line with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s vision of “an alliance of life” stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. As India becomes a key economic partner, Lapid can set his sights even further east.

“India is part of the Gulf landscape,” said Birvadker, “and though Israel is new to the region, it can certainly make use of India’s leverage in the region.”

TOI staff contributed to this report. 

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