Expanded Israeli-Indian relations begin to take shape, after Netanyahu-Modi bromance
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were known to be close, sometimes uncomfortably.
During Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017, the two leaders waded barefoot together in the waves, the waves gently licking the hems of their pants as they spoke. The two then sipped wine and rode around in a water desalination buggy.
To make sure his close friend didn’t forget the experience, Netanyahu then presented Modi with a photo of their walk on the beach.
“I say our partnership is an alliance made in heaven and consecrated on earth,” Netanyahu said during his visit to India early next year.
The enthusiastic hugs and praise the leaders exchanged were no fancy trifle. They reflected a nascent strategic partnership between countries, which had grown steadily over the past two decades.
With Netanyahu removed from office, Modi must now forge a personal relationship with a new Israeli leadership, the same individuals who have banded together in a bid to oust Netanyahu from office.
But all signs are that even if half of the duo are not in power, ties between Israel and India will continue to develop, and could even benefit from a significant boost from the Abrahamic accords.
“India and Israel have been coming together for many years, and the future points to expansion and even greater convergence of interests,” said Oshrit Birvadker, India expert at Reichman University in Herzliya. “The series of visits by senior officials is very much in line with the overall relationship. “
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar concluded a five-day tour of Israel, in which he praised bilateral trade relations, saying India views Israel “in many ways as perhaps our partner. the most reliable and the most innovative ”.
The day before, Jaishankar had sent an invitation from Modi to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to pay his first official state visit to India.
“Modi was among the first world leaders to congratulate Bennett on his rise to prime minister,” noted Birvadker, “and said he wanted to continue to deepen his ties.”
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Jaishankar’s visit was a four-way Zoom call he led with Foreign Secretary Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Secretary. of the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The officials attending this virtual meeting were not haphazardly cobbled together. Their countries represent an emerging alliance that can play a central role in the economic future of India and the region.
The Arab-Mediterranean corridor
One of India’s biggest challenges comes from its neighbor China, which has invested heavily in a series of roads, railways and seaports around the world as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Route “, which is designed to capture a much larger share of trade flows from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe.
New Delhi, which sees China’s modern Silk Road project as a drag on its own growth and international trade, initially sought to avoid being hampered by creating its own corridor to Central Asia. via Iran, then to Europe.
But the project – known as the North-South International Transit Corridor – was a total failure.
With the signing of the Abrahamic Accords in 2020, India was presented with a new opportunity to challenge Chinese views on regional and global trade.
The rail networks being established between Israel and the United Arab Emirates would allow India to ship goods to the United Arab Emirates, which would then be transported by train through Saudi Arabia and Jordan, before moving on to the United Arab Emirates. enter Israel at Beit She’an, then Haifa.
From there, the goods would be shipped to the Greek port of Piraeus, one of the largest in Europe, from which India could access the entire continent.
Discover the Arab-Mediterranean corridor from India to Europe
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Although 300 kilometers (186 miles) of rail lines remain to be built in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the rail link is not a fantasy. In March, the transport ministry announced that it had given the green light for a rail line from Haifa to Beit She’an to be extended several kilometers east to the Jordanian border, where a new depot of goods would also be built.
“This new connectivity constitutes a strategic paradigm shift of enormous geopolitical consequences that could reshape [India’s] role in the Eurasian economic order, ”according to Michael Tanchum of the University of Navarre in Spain, who studies strategic connectivity networks between Asia, Europe and Africa.
And there are already funds available for the project too. In March, the United Arab Emirates announced the creation of a $ 10 billion investment fund for strategic sectors in Israel. According to Globes, the rail link to Haifa is one of the fund’s flagship projects.
Goods could reach Europe from Mumbai within 10 days, according to Tanchum, 40% faster than the Suez Canal route.
Yet it is clear that the plans for the rail link have been waved for years, and there is no guarantee that the political will and funding will materialize. Despite a recent thaw, Jordan is still extremely reluctant to cooperate 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 strong. India is the largest importer of Emirati products and the United Arab Emirates is India’s third largest trading partner. Emirati companies invested billions of dollars to create the India-UAE food corridor last year to boost the food security of the Gulf country.
India aims to become the breadbasket of the Middle East, and Israel is at the center of this ambitious goal. The Foreign Ministry has established 29 Indo-Israel centers of excellence to improve yields, water use and crop diversity.
Other countries, notably Greece, are expected to join this emerging partnership. Greece and Israel already cooperate closely on the exploitation of resources in the Mediterranean in the face of Turkey’s aggressive policies and actions.
However, the Arab-Mediterranean corridor cannot bypass China entirely, and Israel has no 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, as the Chinese company COSCO does in the port of Piraeus.
“But they have links with supply chains from China to Europe,” said Tuvia Gering, China expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “This is also a characteristic that we wanted, on which Israel will become central. “
China cannot prevent Indian or other ships from reaching Haifa, because the Israel Transportation and Ports Administration – not SIPG – controls which ships enter and leave the country’s ports.
“Indians don’t have to worry much about this aspect,” Gering said.
In addition, Indian companies can also gain a foothold in Haifa. International bidders are lining up to buy another port in Haifa, and Adani Ports, an Indian company, has partnered with Israeli group Gadot on their bid.
“It’s not a zero-sum game,” Gering said.
Egypt, a key partner of Israel and Greece in the EastMed Gas Forum, is significantly less excited about the idea, as it would reduce the importance of the Suez Canal, one of its only sources of foreign currency .
The emerging axis is in line with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s vision of a “life alliance” stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. As India becomes a key economic partner, Lapid can aim even further east.
“India is part of the Gulf landscape,” said Birvadker, “and although Israel is new to the region, it can certainly use India’s influence in the region.
TOI staff contributed to this report.