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Close ties expected to continue under new Israeli PM Naftali Bennett, officials say

Unseating Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Premier for the past 12-years and a self-avowed close friend of India, the new prime ministership has implications for India's trade ties and foreign policy in the larger Middle East, officials say. However, given the current pace of growth in bilateral relations, no significant changes are foreseen currently, they add

June 14, 2021 / 02:54 PM IST
Naftali Bennett, the 49-year-old leader of the right-wing Yamina party, took oath of office after the Knesset (Parliament) elected him as the 13th Prime Minister of Israel by a 60-59 vote in the 120-member house. Seen here (on the right) with outgoing Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Naftali Bennett, the 49-year-old leader of the right-wing Yamina party, took oath of office after the Knesset (Parliament) elected him as the 13th Prime Minister of Israel by a 60-59 vote in the 120-member house. Seen here (on the right) with outgoing Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

After two national elections in two-consecutive years brought on by complicated political deadlocks among many competing political parties, Naftali Bennett has become the new Prime Minister of Israel.

India and Israel had come increasingly closer both geo politically and economically under the outgoing Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, with an unprecedented convergence in foreign policy that is not expected to be weakened anytime soon, senior officials from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said.

From defence ties to more cooperation in water management, agriculture, high tech manufacturing and start-ups, both nations have exponentially upgraded their bilateral relations in the past few years.

However, they point out that the next chapter in bilateral relations will also be guided by the individual equations between the leaders of the two nations, both of whom have a hands-on approach to policy making.

Bonhomie between leaders


Over the past seven years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has increasingly committed India as the all-weather friend of Israel and has publicly appreciated his personal friendship with Netanyahu multiple times.

The 'great friendship' hailed by both leaders saw bilateral relations warm up significantly.

Case in point, the Israeli embassy tweeted a montage of pictures of both leaders smiling and shaking hands with the 'Yeh dosti hum nahi todenge' hit song from the movie Sholay playing in the background.

On June 14, while Modi used the twitter to congratulate Bennett on becoming Prime Minister,  he followed almost immediately by a tweet marking Netanyahu: "Towards the end of your successful role as Prime Minister of Israel, I would like to express my deep appreciation for your leadership and pay special attention to the strategic relations between India and Israel."

In July 2017, Modi became the first ever Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in a trip termed as historic by both nations.

Media coverage of the event in both countries, as well as the international press, had also focused on the friendly personal equations between the two leaders.

Following the visit, Israel named a new type of Chrysanthemum flower, after Modi.

In the following year, Netanyahu came to India accompanied by the largest ever, 130-strong delegation from Israel.

The visit saw ties diversify into areas such as cybersecurity, oil and gas production, air transport, film production, space technology and innovation.

Closer business ties

It is this deepening business relations between both the countries that will continue to anchor the relationship, policy watchers said.

The total trade between India and Israel has continued to grow over the past five years, driven mostly by Indian exports, hitting a high of $5.6 billion in 2019-20 before falling to $ 4.9 billion in the COVID-hit FY21.

"However, the new Israeli administration may double down on their demands for India to buy more goods from Israel as New Delhi's imports from Israel have shrunk over the years, registering $1.5 billion in FY21. Despite this, as of 2019, India was the sixth largest destination for Israeli goods," a senior trade policy expert from the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT) said.

On the defence front, India is the largest buyer of Israeli equipment. For India, Israel is currently the second largest source of military hardware after Russia.

The long-term nature of these contracts and the geopolitics involved in defence deals, which are not expected to change drastically anytime soon, is set to assure continuity of greater business in this area.

India, however, is also expected to pressure Israel into investing more.

"Till March 2021, historical Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from Israel stood at $220 million, up from $86 million in 2015. But Israel's position as the 44th largest investor in India in 2015 improved only to the 42nd largest investor in 2021," added the IIFT expert.

Palestinian question

Bennett heads the 'New Right' political party, which currently spearheads the Yamina coalition in the Israeli Parliament.

It brings together various elements from the country's conservative core, from urban centre-right to ultra conservative far right settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Politically, Bennett is not expected to deviate from most of Netanyahu's goals as he too doesn't believe in a two-state solution and backs the complete annexation of the disputed areas claimed by Palestinians.

That is not expected to affect bilateral ties as India has played a tight balancing act on the Palestine issue and is expected to continue doing so.

“Our official position remains that India unwaveringly supports a two-state solution and the right of the Palestinian people for self -determination. We also support the rights of Israel to coexist peacefully,” a senior official said.
Subhayan Chakraborty

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