India Targets the Mediterranean Through Israel

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By Lorenzo Di Muro

1. India-Israel relations are at their highest ever point. Kept knowingly out of the spotlight by Delhi for decades, the relationship with Jerusalem is now directing India’s projection toward the Middle East and Western Middle Ocean. And as such it is magnified by both India’s and Israeli’s upper echelons. Its essence was captured by Benjamin Netanyahu after his 2014 meeting with Narendra Modi: “the sky is the limit [to India-Israel relations].” These statements were echoed by Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyan Jaishankar, who calls the Jewish state “perhaps our most trusted partner”.

From Delhi’s perspective, Israel allows India to entrench itself in “West Asia” to safeguard its interests and ambitions and to prevent the Chinese enemy from having its way, while securing dual-use investment and technology, intended for both military and civilian industries. In short, to elevate both the geopolitical status and internal socioeconomic conditions of a mosaic state that wants to be a “world guru”.

The Israeli-Indian synergy – widely described as a product of the proximity between radical Zionism and Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) – is fuelled first and foremost by structural dynamics. First, US disengagement from the Middle East, as it focuses on China in the Indo-Pacific theatre and the proxy war against Russia in Eastern Europe. Then, the fragmentation and fluidity of the so-called Islamic world, with Turkey committed to standing as the leader of the umma and the Arab petro-monarchies mending fences with Israel. And lastly, the extroversion shown by the People’s Republic of China’s in its current involvement in Persia, between the Gulf and the Levant, and all the way to the Mediterranean.

The synergy is no longer marked just by traditional diamonds and cannons. Indians and Israelis collaborate across the board: defence, intelligence, cyber-security, high technology, infrastructure, water and food resource management. The rise of Modi and his historically Zionist Indian People’s Party has coincided with changes in the strategic landscape that have deepened this liaison. But the full opening of diplomatic relations (1992) with Israel and their substantial development between 2004 and 2014, parallel to the opening with the Americans, occurred under governments led by the Congress Party, which also did not flaunt them.

So in addition to “looking” and “acting in the east” (read: Southeast Asia), India is gearing up to replicate in the West. Hence the partnership with the Jewish state on a bilateral level and through formats such as the I2U2 Group, created in 2021 by India, Israel, the Emirates, and the United States, which in the summer of 2022 held its first (virtual) leader-level summit. Analysts such as Mohammed Soliman of the Washington-based Middle East Institute called it an “Indo-Abrahamic alliance”: a set of economically growing countries linked with different nuances to the West, which consider radical Sunni Islam as an adversary and face American disengagement and Chinese penetration at the same time.

Let’s clear up misunderstandings: the I2U2 Group is not a “Middle East Quad”. Whereas America is the driving force behind the Asian Quad, which groups the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, this is not the case with I2U2 Group. The US does grant its approval, but it is concentrated on the Indo-Pacific, where the scenario involving China is evolving and where – Ukraine war permitting – the US must punt the status quo. Not to mention that, unlike the Quad with its obvious anti-Chinese inspiration, I2U2 Group lacks a common enemy. One need only think of the different relationships that bind its components to Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and China itself. Through Chinese mediation, the Islamic Republic has just re-established diplomatic relations with its Saudi rivals. At the same time, Iran is an existential enemy for Israel but a maritime outpost and gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia for India. India sees the People’s Republic as its main strategic threat, as opposed to the Gulf countries and to some extent Israel. It is not a coincidence that Delhi has strengthened its partnership with Abu Dhabi as the Pakistani enemy increasingly enters the orbit of Ankara, the true standard bearer for Pakistan’s Kashmir claims. In the light of their clout on Pakistani finances, the petro-monarchies are gaining leverage with Islamabad – the Indo-Pakistani agreement of early 2021, which restored the ceasefire negotiated in 2003, was brokered by the Emirates. 

The lumpiness of I2U2 Group plays into the hands of member states, particularly India, which is interested in its economic and geopolitical dividends inspired by the same pragmatism shown after February 24, 2022. 

2. After recognising Israel de jure in 1950, India waited until 1992 to establish full diplomatic relations, in the wake of the 1991 Madrid Conference and especially the dissolution of the USSR. For Delhi, the Zionist movement was the other side of British (and Western) imperialism, based on the divide and rule principle as much in the Middle East as in the Indian subcontinent. Given the extraordinary internal heterogeneity and copious Muslim presence, leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru feared the risks of state building based on religious affiliation. Hence the opposition to the plan for the partition of Palestine voted by the UN General Assembly in 1947. Especially after Pakistan’s independence, Delhi feared the electoral and security fallout of rapprochement with Israel and did not intend to alienate the Gulf petro-monarchies. Not to mention that India and the Jewish state were on opposite sides of the American and Soviet barricades.

Yet for decades and away from the limelight, Israel provided Delhi with military assets, intelligence, and training in times of need, beginning with the 1962 war with China and the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. The cooperation did not stop even with the US sanctions that followed the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998. Since then, despite the 2004 succession of Manmohan Singh (Congress Party) to Atal Bihari Vajpayee (Indian People’s Party), military interchange has strengthened.

Since 1992, Israel has provided some $40 billion in armaments. It has also shared cutting-edge technology in the areas of radar, targeting and navigation systems, and electronic warfare. On the diplomatic and rhetorical level, between 2015 and 2016, the Indian Foreign Ministry began describing Israel and India as post-colonial democracies besieged by terrorism and the respective defence ministers made official visits. Meanwhile, the treatment of the Palestinians has changed: while continuing to support and recognise the State of Palestine, Delhi no longer advocates East Jerusalem as its capital and decides on a case-by-case basis how to take sides at the United Nations.

As for relations with the Arab World, during the Cold War, Delhi favoured ties with secular and socialist regimes and then sought to correct course in the face of their collapse and the growing energy and financial clout of the petro-monarchies. Today, the Gulf States have also become crucial in terms of investment and security, so much so that the Indian Navy has a permanent presence in the waters of the Arabian Sea and in 2018 secured access to the port of Duqm (Oman) on the Strait of Hormuz. 

3. The turning point in Indo-Israeli relations, including on the plane of symbolism, occurred in 2017, with Modi’s historic visit – the first by an Indian leader – and the accompanying announcement of the bilateral strategic partnership. The Indian premier did not travel to the Territories and paid homage at Herzl’s grave, an eloquent recognition of Zionism and confirmation of the removal of the Palestinian issue from the approach to the Jewish state.

Modi’s ties with Israel date back to the previous decade, when the current Indian leader was chief minister of Gujarat. In 2006, he visited the Jewish state and urged it to invest in India’s agricultural and water sectors. It is no coincidence that in 2014 the Foreign Ministry of the Modi government was given to Sushma Swaraj, former chairman of the India-Israel Parliamentary Group for Friendship.

Meanwhile, military relations continued to strengthen. Between 2016 and 2020, India acquired more than 40% of the arms exported by Israel, the second largest supplier of war materiel to Delhi after the Russian Federation. That’s an increase in imports over the previous five-year period of 175%. It provided for divestment and co-development of technologies and production in India of part of the armaments. And it was functional to Modi’s trademark Make in India plan aimed at making the country a global manufacturing power even in the military sector. Pointing in this direction is the creation of Indo-Israeli joint ventures developing and producing Barak 8 surface-to-air missiles, Skystriker and Hermes drones, Tavor assault rifles, and so on. Jerusalem also continues to lend a hand in emergencies such as during the re-ignition of hostilities on the Sino-Indian border after clashes in Ladakh in 2020, when it sent Heron-Tp drones to Delhi to guard the borders.

Israel also trains and equips Indian special forces and police in counterterrorism, first and foremost those stationed in disputed Kashmir. To put it in Modi’s terms, “India and Israel live in complex geographies. […] India has suffered first-hand the violence and hatred spread by terror. So has Israel.” That is why, after the move by which in 2019 Delhi stripped the state of Jammu and Kashmir of autonomy, splitting it into two Union Territories, the Indian Consul in New York urges applying the “Israeli model” to alter the demographic-religious composition of the Muslim-majority region. This operation is described by Indian Home Minister Amit Shah as “annexation” and is called “legitimate” by the Israeli Consul for South India, to Pakistan’s dismay.

Growing India-Israel relations are not limited to defence. Excluding military interchange, worth about a billion dollars a year, trade flows have risen from $200 million in 1992 to nearly $8 billion in 2022, the year in which negotiations on the bilateral free trade agreement were re-opened. On the agricultural-hydraulic front, through the Israel International Development Cooperation Agency (Mashav), Jerusalem has shared technologies for the production and processing of products. It installed thirty centres of excellence on Indian soil, which trained more than 150,000 farmers in 2019 alone. It has stationed two water and agriculture attachés (a unique case) at its embassy in Delhi. These moves have a functional role for India’s goal of raising the population’s standard of living and increasing its trade clout. Today, the Asian giant originates 40% of rice exports, more than the next four combined suppliers. It is also the world’s second-largest grain producer and has increased exports in recent years despite having to allocate much of it to the domestic market and despite a quota dictated by inflationary trends produced by the Ukraine war.

The Abraham Accords, the relationships linking Delhi to the petro-monarchies and the I2U2 Group, which aim to create a trade and investment corridor between the Mediterranean and India via the Gulf and Levant, should be placed in this framework. The Indo-Arab-Israeli Corridor would be in addition to the International North-South Corridor, which aims to connect Europe, Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran to India, where Delhi is developing the port of Chabahar – yet another demonstration of India’s multi-sector approach. From Mumbai, via Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel, Indian goods would land in European ports in ten days, a reduction in time in the order of 40% compared to the route via the Suez Canal. Despite US approval, this project is being pursued mostly within the framework of previous understandings among the other three members of the I2U2 Group, beginning with the 14 Indo-Emirati agreements of 2017, with promised investments of $7 billion for the building of a “food corridor.”

If India wants to become a power it must not only secure and increase its trade, but also create alternatives to China’s new silk routes, safeguarding its interests at the Western end of the Indo-Pacific. It must help shape the trade architecture by developing value chains such as the one underlying the mid-ocean corridor by pivoting on trade and financial flows with the Emirates and Israel and on the fluidity of the geopolitical framework. Abu Dhabi, Delhi’s main point of contact in the Gulf and its strategic partner since 2017, is India’s third largest source of energy imports and third largest trading partner, with an interchange of $73 billion that will benefit from the free trade agreement in force from mid-2022. Also in 2022, the Jewish state, India’s primary interlocutor in the Levant, also signed a similar agreement with the Emirates.

Covid first and the Ukraine war later confirmed how dependent West Asia and North Africa are on Moscow and Kiev for food security. Hence the Indo-Arab-Israeli plans to create new food corridors based on the intertwining of each other’s trade, investments, markets, and technological findings. In the plans, such directories can also be used in the future in the energy field. First and foremost, progress is being made bilaterally, and in fact, even Abu Dhabi is playing a growing role in the production and distribution of Indian food products. At the same time, at the first meeting between summits of I2U2 Group countries, the Emirates allocated two billion dollars to create agricultural parks in India.

Delhi also benefits from the collaboration between Israelis and Emiratis in the field of technology. In 2021, Abu Dhabi announced the establishment of a $10 billion fund to invest in Israeli companies and start-ups active in energy, water, space, healthcare, agri-tech: all sectors at the centre of Delhi-Jerusalem cooperation. In the meantime, the International Semiconductor Consortium, a joint venture between Emirates-based Next Orbit Ventures and Israel’s Tower Semiconductor, will invest $3 billion to build a microchip factory in Karnataka.

5. The Indian conglomerate paradigm for the Delhi-Jerusalem convergence and the emerging mid-ocean axis is the Adani Group, Modi’s India’s spearhead in the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East, heading toward the Mediterranean. The goal is to accelerate India’s socioeconomic development and its establishment as a regional power. It is also a reaction to China’s infrastructural and military projection in the Indo-Pacific, as reflected in the locations targeted by the Indian giant’s investments and objectives – especially on the maritime side – including Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Australia, Tanzania (here in partnership with the Emirati Ad Ports), and Egypt.

Together with Israel’s Gadot, which has a 30% stake in the deal, last year Adani secured the concession until 2054 for the port of Haifa, the Jewish state’s second-largest seaport and where the US Sixth Fleet often makes its home. It is a terminal posed opposite that acquired in 2015 by China until 2040. This tested Washington’s patience, as it pressed Israel to prevent new divestments to the Chinese. Confirmation of the investment’s strategic nature derives not only from statements made by CEO Karan Adani, who stressed that in the Group’s vision Israel must become a pivot for the growing trade flows between India, the Middle East and Europe, or from the timing (the announcement of the deal came on the same day as the first summit of I2U2 Group leaders). But also from the amount of the bid ($1.2 billion) submitted by Adani, 55% higher than the second-placed bid received by Israeli authorities.

In addition, the Group cooperates with Israel on the technological-military level. Through agreements with Israeli Elbit Systems, Adani-controlled companies develop and produce Skylark, Thor, and Hermes drones: India is the first country to build them outside Israeli borders. It also builds X95 assault rifles, Galil, Negev, Uzi.

6. Geographically at either end of the “Arab World”, India and Israel consider themselves civilised states. Both children of the declining British Empire, since their establishment they have been forced to face threats brought by their Islamic neighbours, including terrorism. And they have been led for decades by secularised and westernised elites, who however have gradually lost their grip on the population over the past two decades.

From Delhi’s perspective, the Jewish state is the functional Eastern Mediterranean pivot to contain China and chase “developed nation” (read: power) status, to be fully achieved by 2047, the centenary of independence from the British Crown. In hailing the acquisition of the Israeli port, Adani not surprisingly cited the 15th Brigade of the British Imperial Cavalry, composed of Indian contingents, which in September 1918 earned honours with a decisive contribution to the liberation of Haifa – then from the Ottomans, today from the Chinese.

Relations with the Jewish state concur to meet the development and security needs of a giant with a high idea of itself and great ambitions that nonetheless continues to suffer from structural delays, border instabilities, and cultural faults that undermine its geopolitical completeness.

Israel is the world’s leading country in relative spending on research and development, India’s traditional huge problem and among the reasons fuelling Delhi’s openness to the West, which it needs for its technological advancement in socioeconomic and military terms. The Jewish state provides cutting-edge solutions in water resource management and agriculture, decidedly non-negligible sectors to the world’s most populous country, marked by poverty that afflicts 25% of its population but intent on increasing its (not only) food exports. As for the military, the relationship with Israel is as decisive as those with Russia, France, and America. The Indian defence market is among the largest in the world and is also among those with the greatest growth potential. Delhi aims not only to modernise and indigenise its arsenal but also to become an arms exporter. This is already happening in Southeast Asia, for example in the Philippines, an actor at the centre of Beijing’s not at all friendly attentions.

Finally, cooperation with Israel is useful in building new trade routes and value chains, an increasingly neuralgic point in a global system marked by the proliferation of multilateral mini-agreements. Indeed, the Chinese challenge induces the Americans, in the grip of an identity crisis and imperial overexposure, to focus on the Indo-Pacific and increasingly press their allies (Israelis included) to scale back the People’s Republic’s presence. All the while de-globalisation, the dilution of the American-centric order, is advancing. 

All of this opens up margins for co-players and a reshuffling of the balance, including in the Middle East. This offers an opportunity for India to expand its influence, in concert with countries with Israel’s and the Emirates’ financial and technological resources, in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and North and East Africa. As Jaishankar recently remarked, “Due to some political reasons, we had to restrict ourselves from enhancing relations with Israel. […] The time has gone when we used to keep national interest aside.”

Translated by Mark A. Sammut Sassi.

This article was adapted from the original that appeared in Limes (03/2023) “Israel against Israel”.