China a trading partner, India a strategic one, says Israel

NEW DELHI: Israel’s relationship with India is a strategic one- independent of Israel’s strong trade ties with China or India’s historic relationship with Iran, officials in Tel Aviv have indicated. 

With the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in India under PM Narendra Modi committing itself to taking ties with Israel to an altogether new level, chances of a visit by an Indian prime minister to Israel are also “not as unlikely” any more, as it was until the beginning of this year. Although China is Israel's largest trading partner in Asia, there is no question of that diluting the strategic content of its ties with India, say Israeli officials. 

No Indian PM has visited Israel in 22 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. But that may be set to change. “PM Narendra Modi was invited to Israel when he met his counterpart Benyamin Netanyahu in New York and we hope to welcome him here,” said an Israeli official.

India happens to be the number one buyer of arms from Israel. Sources told TOI in Tel Aviv that there was no move by Israel to revive arms trade with China. Israel's main political and defence ally, the US, imposes strict restrictions on supply of arms or any defence technology to China or any other country by Israel. In the case of military cooperation with India, however, according to Israeli defence officials, Israel's agreements with the US are not a constraint. 

“Unlike what we are going to see with China anytime soon, the Israeli government pushes us to go for the maximum in any defence or arms agreement with India,” said an Israeli official on the condition of anonymity. The official spoke to a visiting Indian media delegation on the sidelines of a homeland security conference in Tel Aviv. 

Despite its burgeoning trade and economic ties with China, Israel doesn't look at Beijing as a strategic partner the way it does at India, according to top Israeli government sources. 

With an annual trade volume of over $10 billion, China is Israel's largest trading partner in Asia. Beijing is also on the verge of knocking over the US as the top funder of joint ventures in Israel involving foreign companies, including Israel's famed hi-tech startup companies. India's annual trade with Israel is still around $5 billion but Israeli officials say this could double with the signing of a free trade agreement (FTA) which is being negotiated. 

On display at the homeland security conference in Tel Aviv was also the Iron Dome, Israel's advanced missile-shield system with a success rate of almost 85-90% in intercepting missiles fired by Hamas from Gaza. India toyed with the idea of purchasing the Iron Dome for a while even though the defence system in its present form can intercept missiles fired only from a range of 4 km to 70 km. Israeli defence officials admitted that the Iron Dome was currently more suited to South Korea which needs to protect capital Seoul, located a mere 35 miles from the border with North Korea. 

When asked if Israel could consider sharing technology behind Iron Dome, even if India doesn't actually buy the defence system with its limited range, the officials said this was very much possible with India “through research and development”. The NDA government is also looking for access to Israel's technology in homeland and aviation security and also border protection. 

According to Israel, both countries have in the recent past been more open about at least the economic aspect of their relationship and there was an understanding in Israel that New Delhi's relations with Iran could not be seen as an impediment to their ties with India. India's ties with Iran are important not just for historical reasons and for its large Shia population but also for access to Afghanistan and central Asia. The Indian Cabinet only last month approved the proposal for developing Chabahar port in Iran, barely 80 km from Gwadar in Pakistan where the Chinese have built a mega port.

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