India and Israel within Quartet with US and UAE
The new Quartet may have some similarities with the QUAD on its non-military dimension
Dr S Jaishankar, Indian Minister of External Affairs (EAM), was possibly the first Foreign minister to have visited Israel for five days (October 17-21) with a comprehensive engagement and agenda.
His interactions spanned from meetings with his counterpart Foreign Minister and Alternate PM Yair Lapid, Prime Minister Naftali Bennet to a call on President Herzog and the Speaker of Knesset and people to people engagement including interactions with 85000 strong and dynamic bridge of Jewish community of Indian origin as well as with the Israeli business community.
The visit was a great success that allowed catching up across the spectrum might be an understatement. Like Israel the Indo-Israel relations have mostly been under the shadow of personae of Benjamin Netanyahu for over a decade.
His personal chemistry with PM Narendra Modi is well known. Hence, the visit of EAM Dr S Jaishankar was to get to know the new dispensation even through the tweet exchanges over time have clearly underscored the continuity of importance of I 4 I ( India for Israel and vice -versa ).
Besides, the two sides agreed to mutually recognise vaccine certificates -an issue rather sensitive to India. Israel Joining the International Solar Alliance -an Indian multilateral initiative will open new opportunities in renewables and climate change and green technology collaboration.
Setting the tone and tenor Dr Jaishankar underscored “Next year marks the 30th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between India and Israel. India is celebrating the 75th year of our own independence. In 2023, Israel too would be celebrating the 75th year of its independence. These occasions are significant milestones to start new voyages and to cover new horizons.”
Since 1992, when India had upgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel, the bilateral relationship has grown from strength to strength and expanded from comprehensive security to counter terrorism to agriculture to healthcare and high technology and defence.
Israel has usually stood up for India and was vocal in its favour whenever external challenges confronted it. On the silver jubilee of the diplomatic relations PM Modi made the first ever visit at that level in 2017 when the relationship was turned into strategic partnership even on paper. This is a relationship that had the strategic undertones all the way given the security components of the collaborative matrix. Next year they will be celebrating 30 years of full-fledged diplomatic engagement.
PM Modi’s visit was also in the context of India’s de-hyphenated policy as it decided its relationship with Israel and Palestine to stand on their own merit and strength while maintaining her long-term principled approach with regard to Palestinian issue. India could not be holier than the Arab world.
Tel Aviv and Ramallah both understand it clearly. India’s stand was also clearly evident earlier this year when during Ramadan Israel and Hamas escalated violence yet again. India stood for a negotiated two state solution and was opposed to unilaterally changing or discarding the ground situation or the already reached umpteen agreements.
The visit by the EAM was also in the context of India’s de-hyphenated policy and in the backdrop of multiparty Bennet-Lapid rule and above all the enriching expanse of the Abraham Accords. This was the time to get to know the new Israeli leaders well and to respond to new challenges in West Asia as US exit from Afghanistan and other theatres including West Asia has been impacting the security concerns and the evolving dynamic where China and Russia are enhancing their robust footprints amongst the anxious, uncertain and hesitant rulers in the region.
They are indeed concerned with the US withdrawal and nonchalance to stay on as the sole arbiter of security for them. Israel is no exception.
Challenges for India are also growing with the emergence of a new informal yet robust China centric alignment with CRIPTAQ (China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and Qatar as an outlier). Several of these countries pose a bilateral and regional challenge to India’s core interests. Therefore, as the main regional players find the optimal level of rapprochement and modus vivendi, or a localised regional security architecture India will have to work closely with all of them to locate its centre of gravity.
The US on its part especially Trump administration was keen to ensure a regional architecture where Israel’s security could be ensured and hence the Abraham Accords. But as Biden Administration, despite stern opposition of Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, is trying to take a more equanimous approach for reviving the 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action from which Trump had withdrawn ) with Iran it was imperative that the Abraham Accords be adopted and energised to placate the Israeli and Jewish sentiment.
Therefore, earlier in the month Secretary Blinken invited his Israeli and UAE counterparts before embarking on a new economic edifice comprising of UAE, the US, India and Israel which is being touted by some as yet another QUAD.
But, indeed, there have been serious expectations to have a trilateral cooperation between IUI (India, UAE and Israel) especially in key areas of economy, cyber security, counter terrorism, food and energy and maritime security and high tech collaboration including in innovation, space and defence as all of them have similar challenges. But the US steering it now with the participation of all four Foreign Ministers has given it a greater heft.
From India’s perspective all the three are her close strategic partners. Moreover, the US is India’s first or second trade and investment partner; UAE remains the third largest trading partner which is looking to invest over $75 bn into new Indian opportunity; and Israel remains her key technology and 3rd biggest defence partner.
Moreover, India has been discussing a trade deal with the US and has announced negotiations of a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CEPA) with Abu Dhabi and a FTA (Free Trade Agreement) with Tel Aviv during the visit of the EAM.
Hence, establishing the Quartet’s Economic Forum becomes logical. It remains to be seen whether others will join, and a larger economic framework will be founded. Since the timelines of the conclusion is estimated in 2022, when India celebrates her 75th anniversary of Independence, we might be looking at a Summit level engagement. As such, the EAM has invited PM Bennet to visit India.
Defence and security are key elements of cooperation among all four countries. India has one of the largest defence pie but countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE and Qatar and Israel complete the circuit.
No wonder then that during the EAM’s visit an Indian Airforce contingent participated first time with its five upgraded Mirage2000 fighter jets in Israel’s largest and most advanced “Blue Flag” aerial exercises (October 17-28) along with the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Greece.
EAM Dr S Jaishankar visited the Indian contingent too. With UAE and the US, India’s defence engagement and multitude of exercises have already engineered substantive engagement.
The new Quartet may have some similarities with the QUAD on its non-military dimension. But a substantive difference is that in the new quartet both UAE and Israel are major participants and proponents of Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In fact, with its digital and health silk-road initiatives among others UAE remains the centrepiece of China’s collaboration in the GCC and the key infrastructural projects in Israel are even the envy and cause of worry for Washington DC.
As for India, despite border conflicts and conscious desire to scale down, China has emerged its largest trading partner crossing over $100 billion during the pandemic. The US also follows the strategic competition with China in a larger geopolitical contestation but collaborates where it needs to.
Therefore, while there would be concerns by one or the other no one would take an overt stance against the Red Kingdom.
To what extent China is concerned by these developments, as it is unlikely to be a zero-sum game, is any body’s guess. But for India, definitely, a positive trajectory has opened up which also provides greater salience from the Indo-Pacific to the Mediterranean and a win-win potential to the other three.
***The writer is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta; views expressed are his own