Each time a high-level Indian-Israeli visit sails into view, a hackneyed refrain is heard – that Delhi is taking the relationship with Tel Aviv “out of the closet”. This refrain has surfaced also in the context of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel on Tuesday.

Perhaps, it is useful to give a touch of evergreen romance to an old relationship – as if India were biting a forbidden fruit. But it should not be overlooked that India-Israel ties constitute a transactional relationship.

India crossed the Rubicon a quarter century ago when the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao decided to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. At that time, it seemed a risky decision to many onlookers, but Rao’s judgement was spot on, as was often the case. Simply put, he sensed the imperative need to adjust to post-Cold War geopolitical realities.

Once the compass was set, a big ship like India seldom would reverse course and everyone understood it.

Thus, a bipartisan consensus developed in India steadily that it was useful, and necessary, to have relations with Israel, although it is a small country with a population one-tenth the size of Turkey or Iran, the two regional heavyweights.

Defence and security cooperation

Why does Israel matter? Primarily, India seized the window of opportunity – as China too did at one point before the window slammed shut – to use Israel to siphon US military technology, which the Americans were not in a position to transfer directly. The relationship flourished both because the Israelis were street-smart and because the Americans simply looked away. Today, it has grown into a sturdy tree and is bearing fruit.

On a parallel track, security cooperation gathered momentum as India sought to tap into Israel’s expertise in tackling militancy, starting from the ABC of intelligence gathering to robust interrogation and detention techniques and, lately, procuring equipment to effectively combat militancy and cross-border infiltration.

Nonetheless, it remains a “boutique relationship”. Israel has endeared itself to the Indian defence and security establishment.

Israel had acquired an enviable reputation because of its swagger in the 1967 war with the Arab countries, when it seized the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula – although it has become more the stuff of legend and is largely irrelevant in the contemporary setting, as the futile Lebanon war in 2006 (an inconclusive 33-day conflict between Israel and the Lebanon-based militant and political group Hezbollah) showed.

The critical mass lies somewhere else in the relationship. The heart of the matter is that interest groups have mushroomed on both sides, which is inevitable when tens of billions of dollars change hands in transactions that are almost entirely hidden from public view. Public corruption is high in both countries.

Does the Palestine matter or the Arab-Israeli conflict bother the Indian policymaker working on Israel? Indeed, there is no evidence of it for at least the period since 2004.

Why 2004? That was the year Yasser Arafat died and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi failed to attend the funeral of the Palestinian colossus who had intimate relations at political, ideological and personal levels with the Indian political elite.

Again, the well-informed Indian opinion had grasped a long time ago that the Arab countries themselves only paid lip service to the Palestinian cause and that many (Sunni) Arab countries kept links with Israel at a working level – Egypt and Qatar being the most prominent amongst them.

An anti-Israel demonstration in Mumbai in 2012. The Palestine cause is not of great interest to either Indian policymakers working on Israel or to Indian Muslims. (Credit: Punit Paranjpe / AFP)

The Palestinian cause was never really felt intensely in the blood or heart by the Indian Muslim either, except among a limited circle of enlightened opinion in the community. Thus, incrementally, it became a sentimental journey for India’s Left parties to champion the Palestinian cause.

Given the above, the aura of romance around India-Israel relations is unwarranted. It is essentially a pragmatic relationship that has served a useful purpose for both sides. The danger lies somewhere else.

The differences

The romantic notions should not prevent India from continuously analysing and re-evaluating, from the point of self-interest, its relationship with Israel both in the overall context of West Asian politics as well as in terms of the political economy of the two countries. One can be absolutely sure that Israel would do the same vis-à-vis India. Take, for instance, terrorism.

The reality is that when the two countries speak of terrorism, they speak of very different things. Israel has had dealings with the al Qaeda and Islamic State, regarding them as “strategic assets” in the regional context – the conflicts in Syria and Iraq or its hostility toward Iran and Hezbollah. These proxy groups furthered the Israeli agenda to undermine the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and destabilise the country. Even today, Israel sees the al Qaeda and Islamic State as virulently anti-Shia Salafist groups that are the perfect foil to be pitted against Iran and Hezbollah. Needless to say, any dealings with the Islamic State or al Qaeda would be anathema for India.

On the other hand, when it comes to the Afghan Taliban or the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, they are only of peripheral interest to Israel. India, on the other hand, has a sense of immediacy about the threat posed by these extremist groups. In our region, Israel’s sole interest probably lies in using the Saudi Arabia-supported Wahhabi groups based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to destabilise Iran’s Sunni regions, especially the Sistan-Baluchistan province. India, however, hopes to make big investments to develop an industrial complex in Iran’s Chabahar port (situated near the Pakistani border) and to build a highly strategic North-South access route to Central Asia via Sistan-Baluchistan.

Again, take China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a proposed platform for economic, social and cultural cooperation connecting the country to Central and South Asia and West Asia. Israel is eager to participate in it and an idea to develop a route parallel to the Suez Canal linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean as a Belt and Road project is under discussion.

In fact, do not overlook that even with our big arms purchases from Israel, the volume of China-Israel trade still exceeds our overall trade volume with Israel by over 50%. If we take away the arms purchases, the trade volume shrinks to virtually nothing. India does not even figure among Israel’s top 10 trading partners.

Israel has used the al Qaeda and Islamic State to destabilise Syria. (Credit: George Ourfalian / AFP)

Potential of India-Israel ties

Juxtapose this state of play with the seamless potential for expanding trade volume and economic cooperation with the three big economies in that region – Turkey or Iran and Egypt – and we get a proper perspective on the future potential of India-Israel relations.

Looking ahead, in geopolitical terms, will the Palestine matter fade away anytime soon? Impossible.

More importantly, even as the Islamic State is about to be broken up as a proto-state in Iraq and Syria, there is neither any coherent US strategy for the downstream – not even a willingness to work with Russia’s search for an exit strategy. Which means the eclipse of the Sunni supremacist movement is creating a big vacuum.

There is real danger that Israel may get sucked into it, intentionally or otherwise, with profound consequences difficult to predict. Clearly, the main outside actors are already jostling for position.

Put differently, the strategic stalemate in the region incrementally turns to Israel’s disadvantage unless its relations are normalised with Turkey and Iran, which does not seem likely in a conceivable future.

All in all, therefore, the potential for chaos appears exponential in the situation surrounding Israel. India needs to be watchful in calibrating relations with Israel. There lies the real challenge for Indian diplomacy – not in weathering India’s domestic opinion.

During his career with the Indian Foreign Service, MK Bhadrakumar served as a India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).