Israel’s security concerns are always focused on the land and the air, given its geography. Should Israel have a maritime vision, especially when Israel’s geo-strategic interests are changing? Israel has never been a country which is associated with energy exports but newly found gas fields in the Israeli water, and their future potential is changing Israel’s business dynamics. Israel is now drilling offshore gas for exports. These developments are gradually changing Israel’s maritime outlook and its activities in the Mediterranean sea.
As its maritime interests expand, extremist groups like Hamas, which are in constant conflict with Israel, can harm Israel’s newly emerged sphere of trade. Such a situation gives India an immense opportunity to boost its ties with Israel as well as increase visibility in the Mediterranean sea. Though US presence in the Mediterranean sea provides some security to Israel’s offshore activities, it is not enough.
US naval presence in the Mediterranean has shrunk drastically since the end of the Cold War. In this regard, “the Sixth Fleet’s permanent naval presence is now a single command ship in Italy and four Aegis destroyers equipped for ballistic missile defense, all based in Rota, Spain, just outside the Mediterranean.”
The Indian Navy’s visit to the Haifa port for the first time in 2012 was significant for both India and Israel. In 2015, the Indian Navy ship INS Trikhand’s port call at Haifa was also notable. During its stay, both navies practiced several joint drills. Just ahead of Modi’s historic visit to Israel, the visit by three Indian navy ships – INS Mumbai (a guided-missile destroyer), INS Trishul (a stealth-missile frigate) and INS Aditya in 2017 and INS Tarangini’s visit to Haifa in 2018 – gained importance as it coincided with a time when maritime security has gained critical relevance in the Israel administration. These port calls to Israel, along with other cooperative measures, can provide India a strong presence in the Mediterranean sea.
A presence in this region can also provide India a platform to boost its ties with regions farther in the west and help India strengthen its Look West approach. Israel needs to turn to the sea even as its offshore interests grow, and most countries are beginning to have a maritime outlook. India’s growing relations with the US have the potential for all three countries to work in Israel’s western offshore and collaborate with Israel to improve the overall security situation.
On the other hand, Israel’s trade through the Indian ocean is also a ground where there is an immense scope of cooperation. A report by “Australian Strategic Policy Institute” (ASPI) says that, “Both states share a common threat of Islam, with India worried the Pakistani nuclear arsenal might fall into the hands of Islamist radicals. The Indian ocean, where India is a pivotal actor, is an area of growing interest for Israel because of its apprehensions about Iran and Pakistan. It is perhaps because of America’s disengagement Iran, China, Russia and India have started influencing three main chock points namely, The Hormuz straits, the Suez Canal, and the Bab el-Mandeb straits.”
Both nations have shared interests in the Indian ocean region. The presence of China in the Indian ocean can undermine the Indian trade towards Israel and the west in general. Though Israel is not under a direct threat from China, China’s maritime presence in the Indian ocean with flourishing economic relations with Iran and Pakistan might hamper Indian trade channels, which may harm Israel. Despite having a strong military, Israel would not be able to counter this threat perception towards their productivity due to the absence of a sound naval presence in the Indian ocean.
Another important aspect for Israel is a possible collaboration with India in the Indian ocean, which can provide Israel with an opportunity to counterbalance Iran, where India has a visible presence at the Chabahar port. India’s presence in Iran is important because it will give leverage to Indian supply channels in case of any threats from the Chinese.
However, when it comes to India’s supply to Israel through the Indian ocean, Iran might pressurize India. In such a situation, the United States can play a pivotal role, which is not just a mere ally to Israel. The US and Israel share common interests in the Indian ocean region. Iran is the most prominent regional threat to Israel through its support to extremists in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. The growing Iranian influence in the Indian ocean is also diminishing the opportunity for the US to counter China in the case of any discord regarding blockading of vital choke points.
India can also benefit from the U.S-Israeli bonhomie. The presence of regional and international powers in the Gulf of Eilat and the Suez Canal will provide opportunities and challenges to Israel, and sound naval cooperation between India and Israel will undoubtedly benefit both these country’s maritime interests.
In the light of Israel’s hostile relationship with its neighboring countries, having strategic naval cooperation with India could benefit Israel. India’s strategic reach can provide maritime security to Israel’s trading routes in the Red sea, and Israel can also be a partner in anti-piracy cooperation along with India and the US in the Indian ocean region, as piracy also poses a threat to Israel’s trade through the Indian ocean.
Since Israel’s engagement with other South and Southeast-Asian nations is growing, it needs to rethink about its maritime security policy in the Indian ocean region. A trilateral naval partnership between India, the US, and Israel would help India to have a strong foothold in the Indian ocean and enhance its role as a regional player.
*** The author is a graduate from Institute of Foreign Policy studies, University of Calcutta. His M.Phil dissertation was on “India-Israel Relation: Perspective on Changing Nature of India’s West Asia Policy” and his area of interests includes Maritime security in the Indian Ocean, riparian relations and geopolitics of South Asia. ***