In weaving India and Israel together, challenges loom
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In weaving India and Israel together, challenges loom

Officials see plenty of potential for closer ties both in trade and on the strategic front, but getting there may be more complex than Netanyahu’s whirlwind tour of India suggests

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, uses a spinning wheel as his wife Sara Netanyahu, center, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi look on during a visit to Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad on January 17, 2018. AFP/SAM PANTHAKY)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, uses a spinning wheel as his wife Sara Netanyahu, center, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi look on during a visit to Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad on January 17, 2018. AFP/SAM PANTHAKY)

MUMBAI, India — Mumbai’s Gateway of India, a hulking structure looking out over the city’s harbor, was built to commemorate the landing of British King George V and Queen Mary in 1911.

The royal couple never actually got to see the structure, which was only finished in 1924, but it remains to this day as a reminder of the city’s colonial past and as a testament to the grandeur with which rulers were once greeted.

Over 100 years later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a quick whirl around the site just before heading to the airport after five days in India during which he was afforded a welcome seen by some as almost as impressive as the building of the massive gate.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara are greeted by Indian dancers at the airport in Mumbai, India, on January 17, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Unlike the gateway, remnants of Netanyahu’s visit — the Israeli flags the kids waved, and the giant billboards of the Israeli leader gracing every city he visited — will quickly fade. What’s more important, though, is whether the relationship spotlighted by the carefully choreographed displays can withstand the many external pressures bearing on it.

As it stands, the Israel-India trade relationship is estimated to be less than $5 billion and most of the commerce is in diamonds and arms, with official Indian figures putting the number at just under $3 billion, making Israel its 39th-largest trading partner. By contrast, India trades over $7.2 billion annually with Iran. But what officials on both sides see is potential, both for more trade and a closer strategic relationship, and the rub may be getting both to work together.

The stated goal of the trip Netanyahu and over a hundred businesspeople took to India was to diversify and expand business ties and highlight what is seen as an already growing diplomatic relationship. “The sky is the limit,” Netanyahu said on more than one occasion, a sentiment echoed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who accompanied Netanyahu on several legs of the visit, including to his home state of Gujarat.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center and his wife Sara arriving in Ahmadebad, India on January 17, 2018. GPO)

At event after event, officials played up the closeness of the Indian-Israel relationship, the kinship between the countries and the fact that “both of us are surrounded by enemies.” The amalgamation of Israeli tech and Indian creativity was another theme voiced repeatedly during the visit, as Netanyahu met with officials, business leaders, young entrepreneurs and farmers helped by Israeli aid.

But while optimism was omnipresent, there were also signs that the countries did not see eye-to-eye on everything relating to both trade and any strategic/security relationship.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pose for photographers after the Israeli leader arrived at the Air Force Station in New Delhi January 14, 2018. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP)

As the country with the second-largest Muslim population in the world, and with a long-trained relationship with Israel and continuing strong trade ties with Iran, India’s supposed love affair with Israel is more complex than the Netanyahu-Modi bromance on display would indicate.

At a joint statement following an official sit-down, neither premier mentioned the Palestinians, with Modi even saying that the land Indian soldiers helped liberate in World War I was “Israel.” (It may have been a slip of the tongue, but Netanyahu followed his lead, saying they had liberated “Israel, the land of Israel.”)

But on Thursday morning, just hours after Modi paid his last farewell to Netanyahu, news leaked out of the Indian leader’s plans to visit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a matter of weeks.

Just weeks before Netanyahu’s trip, India backed a UN resolution condemning US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, though both countries insisted that the vote would not affect ties.

Modi’s visit to Israel in July, the first ever by an Indian prime minister, did not include a visit to Ramallah. In somewhat similar fashion, Netanyahu’s visit, only the second by an Israeli prime minister after Ariel Sharon’s short and ill-fated jaunt in 2003 — he had to return home to deal with a terrorist attack — didn’t include a meeting with opposition leader Rahul Ghandi of the left-leaning Congress Party.

India’s opposition Congress Party president Rahul Gandhi, center, is presented with a garland, during a meeting in Ahmadabad, India, December 23, 2017. (AP/Ajit Solanki)

While Ghandi’s faction had for years blocked ties with Israel and led the anti-Israel bloc at the United Nations, it did maintain mostly positive ties with Israel in the government led by Manmohan Singh preceding Modi’s rise to power in 2014, making the omission all the stranger.

The lack of a Netanyahu-Gandhi meeting and the fact that the prime minister only visited states ruled by Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP party, even avoiding business hub Bangalore despite the trade orientation of the trip, raised questions as to whether the positive ties forged between Israel and India under Modi would survive his eventual fall from power.

“Confining Netanyahu’s itinerary only to BJP-ruled states is a short-sighted move,” Jawaharlal Nehru University prof. P. R. Kumaraswamy wrote in The Indian Express daily. “Since relations were established by Congress Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, consensus building has been the hallmark of Indo-Israeli relations.”

Strategic relationships could also be hampered by a reluctance to take a stand against each others’ enemies. Despite Israel’s push to isolate Iran over its nuclear program, Tehran and Delhi maintain a close trading partnership, especially in oil, a relationship Delhi is unlikely to give up without more incentive than a few water purification plants.

A cartoon in the Hindustan Times on January 16, 2018. Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)

On the other side, Israeli officials indicated they had no interest in trying to join India in pushing back against Pakistan and China. A cartoon in a popular newspaper during the visit showed Netanyahu and Modi piloting a drone as Pakistan and China cowered in fear, but Israeli officials insisted it was not representative of reality.

“It’s not a zero-sum game,” one Israeli official said, regarding balancing ties with India and ties with China (Israel has no relations with Pakistan).

However, an Indian official noted that the relationship could be affected if Israel’s ties to China moved from the economic to the strategic, with India viewing China — with which it fought and lost a bitter border war in the 1960s — as a major threat.

Arun Singh, a former Indian ambassador to Israel, wrote during Netanyahu’s trip that Jerusalem’s willingness to keep a door open to forging ties with Pakistan and improving ties with China could put a damper on improving the India-Israel relationship.

“There are limits on convergence of interests, as is inevitable between any two countries, especially those with differing histories and dissimilarities in their geopolitical challenges,” he wrote on the Indian website The Print. “We should unhesitatingly consolidate our bilateral relationship with Israel, where it serves our national interest. But we should also remain mindful of limits of the convergences. Israel’s approach to China, Iran and Pakistan are indicative.”

Speaking to reporters during the trip, Netanyahu said he “understood sensitivities” surrounding building of ties with Delhi while both were unaligned on other geopolitical matters.

“Improving ties is not meant to be against any specific country,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara pose for a photograph at the Taj Mahal in the Indian city of Agra on January 16, 2018. ( AFP PHOTO / STR)

But trade and politics are often intertwined, as evidenced by the desire for a direct flight between Delhi and Tel Aviv over Saudi Arabia, which became a major theme of the trip.

Amid reports of talks over brokering such a route for Air India, Netanyahu at a business forum called for a “simple, direct flight.” Later that day, an Indian food exporter confirmed that the lack of such a flight was hurting business ties.

Politics also seeped into Israel’s bid to boost tourism by attracting a Bollywood film, highlighting the potential pitfalls of developing a larger business relationship in any sector. According to reports, a trio of top Muslim Bollywood stars, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, and Shah Rukh Khan, known as “the Khans of Bollywood,” boycotted a gala event held in Mumbai Thursday night to protest Netanyahu. A fourth Bollywood Khan, Ajaz Khan, criticized director Karan Johar on Twitter for attending the event, and posted a tirade against it on YouTube.

At the event, keynote guest Amitabh Bachchan spoke of the allure of Bollywood films and their ability to bring people together. And the very next morning, Bollywood news was on the front page, but for the opposite reason. Riots were threatening to break out over the film “Padmaavat” after the Supreme Court ruled that states could not ban the controversial historical drama based on a 16th century poem about a queen.

The case was just another example that sweet words, like those uttered by Modi, Netanyahu and other officials from both sides about the great Indian-Israeli relationship, were sometimes more complicated than they were made out to be from the dais.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (unseen) at an Israeli-Indian Economic Conference in New Delhi, India on January 15, 2018 (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Indian businesspeople at many of the events hosted by Netanyahu talked up the strength of the economic relationship, though when pressed, they admitted that Israel was only a blip on the map of potential business ties.

After all the talk of Indian-Israeli business ties, the name “Israel” was not mentioned once in the 12-page business section of the Hindustan Times on Friday, the day Netanyahu left.

A close-up shot of the Tammuz missiles mounted on an armed personnel carrier (Photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Free trade talks remain moribund, by all accounts, and the biggest business news to come out the trip was the reviving of a deal for India to buy Spike anti-tank missiles (known as Tammuz in Israel) from the Israeli firm Rafael. However, it seems it may be for less than the original $500 million price tag, to say nothing of the fact that it does nothing to diversify the business relationship or grow it, since Israel thought the deal was in the bag until recently anyway.

Still, ties between the countries are growing unmistakably closer. It’s impossible to overstate the length the Indians went to in order to welcome Netanyahu, with outlandish routines that sometimes seemed almost embarrassingly obsequious — a sign that to a large degree, Israel has a giant on its side, even if it is one that is still largely focused on raising up hundreds of millions of people out of dire poverty, and it is largely thanks to Netanyahu’s emphasis on expanding diplomatic ties around the world.

At the same time, it seems it’s easy to get sucked into exaggerating the importance of that relationship. While Netanyahu was sweet-talking the Indians, behind the scenes he was distracted with working on repairing another diplomatic relationship: with Jordan, which is one he and the rest of the country likely view as more strategic than ties with Delhi.

Indian children wave to a vehicle carrying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they arrive at Sabarmati Ashram or Gandhi Ashram in Ahmadabad, India, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. (AP/Ajit Solanki)

In India, the cheering crowds and adulation were likely a welcome respite from home, where the prime minister is constantly dogged by political intrigue and criminal investigations that are casting a pall over his continued rule. Moments before taking off for Delhi over a week ago, he briefly spoke to reporters, looking dejected as he addressed his son Yair’s strip club tape scandal, which was roiling the country.

Landing back home almost a week later, he sat relaxing in his first class seat as staff, security and journalists disembarked, scrolling through his phone and looking carefree as ever.

Less than an hour before he landed, a major rainstorm had passed over the country, but as his plane touched down, the clouds over the airport cleared and for a brief moment, the sun was shining.

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