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, its number one buyer of arms, according to top Israeli government sources.
As the NDA government under PM Narendra Modi commits itself to taking ties with Israel to an altogether new level, China and Iran remain the proverbial elephants in the room in bilateral relations between the two countries. Israeli officials, though, said here that there was no question of Israel's relations with China diluting the strategic content of its ties with India.
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 officials here said this could double with the signing of a free trade agreement (FTA) which is being negotiated.
Israeli sources here said there was no move by Israel to revive arms trade with China. Israel's main political and defence ally, the US, too 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, though, 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.
On display in the conference 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 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 senior government officials based in Jerusalem, even a visit by an Indian prime minister to Israel is "not as unlikely'' any more as it was until the beginning of this year. "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 official. No Indian PM has visited Israel in 22 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
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.