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Netanyahu aims to strenghten ties with India during visit

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Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu (left) was welcomed by his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi (droite) at the start of a six-day visit in in New Delhi, 14 January 2018.. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed a new era in ties with India after meeting his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on Monday, at the start of a historic six-day visit that shows ties are taking in a more visible and challenging path.


The visit to India is only the second of an Israeli head of government since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1992, and it comes after Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel last July.

Netanyahu is visiting India with the largest-ever business delegation to travel with an Israeli prime minister, including leaders in the technology, agriculture and defence sectors.

The scale of the delegation, which signed nine cybersecurity, space and energy deals on its first full day, underscores the ambition of the Israeli leader to broaden the scope and visibility of ties with New Delhi.

“India has had a subterranean, as it were, defence and intelligence relationship with Israel, including operating Israeli weapons through all its wars,” says Rajesh Rajagopalan, professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

“It was just that it was not on the surface, and now over the last 25 years, that relationship, with diplomatic ties established, has improved consistently under all governments.”

Since then, India has become the biggest market for Israeli weapons, buying more than 800 million euros’ worth of military equipment annually in recent years.

“This relationship has been important from the Indian perspective because of its defence needs,” Rajagopalan says. “This is also important for Israel, because about 40 or 45 percent of Israel’s defence exports go to India.”

Expanding ties

But Netanyahu has shown he intends to broaden the scope and image of ties.

Ahead of the visit, Netanyahu told Indian media he was disappointed that New Delhi voted against the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital at the United Nations General Assembly in December.

But since his arrival, both Netanyahu and Modi have appeared keen to brush the matter aside.

Modi welcomed Netanyahu on Sunday with a pledge to “further cement the close friendship” between the two countries, while Netanyahu said the two leaders were “ushering today a new era in our relations” after talks on Monday.

“We have had diplomatic relations for 25 years, but something different is happening now because of your leadership and our partnership,” Netanyahu told Modi after their meeting.

“They speak the same language of economic liberalisation, of high-tech economies,” says Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, on the common ground between the two leaders and current governments.

“They are also, for tragic reasons, in the forefront of the fight against Islamist totalitarian terrorism. Not Islam as a religion – both countries have about 20 percent Muslim minorities – but against the radicalisation of certain elements within Muslim society and terrorism supported by neighbours across the border, in our case Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, and in their case Lashkar-e-Taiba and the terrorism supported by elements in Pakistan.”

Challenges

Closer and more visible ties with Israel also mean New Delhi has to balance its relationship with its historic support for the Palestinian cause.

“It poses a real challenge from a domestic politics point of view for Modi,” says Kadira Pethiyagoda, an expert on Indian relations with the Middle East with the Brookings Institution centre in Doha.

“The tradition in Indian foreign policy, and I would say the preference among the foreign policy establishment as well as segments of the public, is to maintain this third-world solidarity with the Palestinians.”

From an international perspective, India also cooperates with Arab states and Iran from everything to meeting energy needs to maintaining influence in the region.

“One change in that formula has been Saudi Arabia, which has been aligning with Israel on certain issues,” Pethiyagoda says. “But these will be challenges that Modi will have to deal with.”

Israel could also encounter challenges of its own in the coming years due to the relationship it seeks to maintain with an increasingly influential Beijing.

“As China becomes more and more powerful and becomes a major global actor, I think there are going to be some issues that Israel will have to face with regard to the strategic and defence relationships it has with India,” says Rajesh Rajagopalan.