Opinion |

The Real Story Behind India and Israel’s Surprising Alliance

Over the last seven years, India-Israel relations have warmed up faster than the six preceding decades, thanks to a propitious mix of ideology, pragmatism and geopolitical realignments. How shockproof is the entente now?

In the last seven years alone, India-Israel relations have warmed up far faster than in the six preceding decades, thanks to a propitious mix of ideology, pragmatism and geopolitical realignments
In the last seven years alone, India-Israel relations have warmed up far faster than in the six preceding decades, thanks to a propitious mix of ideology, pragmatism and geopolitical realignmentsCredit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

It’s uncommon for countries to invest inordinate efforts in branding thirty years of bilateral relations, reserving commemorative symbolism for more significant milestones like silver or golden jubilees. Yet India and Israel are toasting their 30-year anniversary with a special logo, fanfare on state broadcasters, and an upcoming Israeli prime ministerial visit to Delhi in June.

More than the milestone, it seems both sides are celebrating the steady momentum of the last few years, after a tortuous journey that has led relations to meander from cold to tepid to very warm indeed.

Even though India established full diplomatic ties with Israel in January 1992, it was an uneasy move. Then Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had, in preparation, invited the ‘old warhorses’ of the foreign ministry to gauge the possible impact of the move.

Despite formally recognizing Israel in 1950, India’s longstanding policy had been careful and coy: Israel was allowed to open a consulate in Mumbai (in 1953), but Delhi held off opening an embassy in Tel Aviv for another 42 years. The shadow of India’s leadership of the non-aligned movement, the desire for the Arab bloc’s neutrality on Kashmir, and the sentiments of the Muslim electorate at home all loomed large over the incipient partnership.

Ties remained lukewarm until the advent of the Vajpayee administration, a fragile coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in 1998.

Vajpayee, who represented the moderate wing of the BJP, set out to redefine India’s foreign policy orientation. He wanted India to mark the new millennium with a pivot towards Washington and the erosion of traditional non-alignment. Israel naturally received a more prominent positioning in such an outlook, and warming relations culminated in Ariel Sharon’s state visit to India in 2003, the first by an Israeli PM.

Under Dr. Manmohan Singh’s premiership (2004-14), New Delhi went back to dithering on public expressions of fraternity with Israel, despite arms worth $1.6 billion during that same period.

In this long tepid arc, 2014 marked a clear rupture. India got its first full majority Hindu nationalist government, which had won with a thumping majority. A new political elite eager to build stronger bilateral ties vanquished the political class that had always been squeamish about Israel.

The precursor to incoming PM Narendra Modi’s BJP, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, always favored political and defense ties with Tel Aviv. In its 1967 election manifesto, it pledged in no uncertain terms that a Jana Sangh government would establish fully-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel.

Bharatiya Janata Party activists decorate a bust of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Jana Sangh, in Kolkata, IndiaCredit: AP Photo/Bikas Das

Narendra Modi’s affinity with Israel is based on a blend of ideological pedigree and national interests. And propitious geopolitical shifts have facilitated the momentum.

The Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and a number of Arab states eased India’s weaning process from walking the usual tightrope in formulating its West Asia policy. The new Middle Eastern ‘Quad’ – a strategic group of the U.S., India, Israel, and the UAE – opens avenues for both sides to enhance strategic interaction.

There are instructive markers for this changed course.

First, as the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, in July 2017, Modi chose to skip Ramallah to signal dehyphenation, the extrication and separation of India’s relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. He reinforced this message by not overflying Israeli air space en route to Ramallah the following year. Assessing ties with Israel on its own merits is a crucial makeover for New Delhi.

Secondly, as part of its balancing political act at multilateral organizations, India has usually reiterated its desire for a two-statesolution, coupled with a wish for East Jerusalem to be Palestine’s capital. In 2016, India formally dropped that demand at the UN; it was also absent in Modi’s remarks during Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ 2017 visit to New Delhi.

A protestor waves Palestinian flag as Indian police barricade a road during a protest by India’s various left parties against the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in New Delhi, IndiaCredit: AP Photo/Oinam Anand

India has maintained that position since, signalling further its disinterest in provoking Israel by abstaining from a UN Human Rights Council vote calling for an inquiry into Israeli actions during last summer’s conflict with Hamas.

Thirdly, although agri-tech and the arms trade currently constitute the lion’s share in bilateral, that conventional lens for viewing Israel – as a partner solely in defense and agriculture – has been superceded. Both sides are actively exploring cooperation possibilities in cybersecurity, water conservation, traditional medicines, film production, space technology, and innovation.

These favorable outcomes are also underwritten by tremendous strategic patience on the Israeli side. Weapons sales and agricultural aid were considered long-term equities that would, eventually, pay off. Despite Tel Aviv’s aid to India in times of adversity, it was never dispirited at India’s lack of political reciprocity.

An Indian Border Security Force soldier checks the working of an UZI Pro Sub-Machine Gun gun manufactured by a joint Israeli-Indian venture at an arms expo in New Delhi, India last yearCredit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

When India used to closely hew to the Arab bloc and no diplomatic ties were in place, Israel did not hesitate to supply ammunition to India during the 1971 war with Pakistan. Similar help was extended during the Kargil war when India was under U.S. sanctions.

The Jewish state has been respectful of the Indian decision to chart out an independent and non-prescriptive policy in the region. Israeli leaders have been forbearing with New Delhi over the years for its closer ties to Tehran, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Baghdad.

During the Modi-Netanyahu bromance, bilateral ties went from strength to strength. Over seven years, India has acquired arms worth $2.3 billion from Israel, including coveted drones, missiles, sensors, and air defense systems. Both heads of government paid reciprocal visits in 2017-18, upgrading ties to the level of a strategic partnership. People-to-people contact grew, boosted by rising numbers of Indian students, caregivers, and engineers working and studying in Israel.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands in Jerusalem, kicking off a high-profile visit to Israel Credit: Debbie Hill/Pool via AP

Similarly, there are 300 significant Israeli investment sites in India, ranging from high-tech to manufacturing plants. Israel remains a key stakeholder in crafting India’s second green revolution through its 30 Centers of Excellence in agriculture.

However, the bilateral relationship has not yet fulfilled all its potential. As Israel’s PM Bennett touts a gehri dosti [deep friendship], his impending visit in June could be the opportunity to lock in more substantial and institutionalized cooperation, from health to education. The opportunity can also see the formalization of the defense cooperation agreement that can pave the way for research and coproduction of arms.

In the last seven years alone, India-Israel relations have warmed up far faster than in the six preceding decades. The current fêting of diplomatic ties indicates that the strength of this bilateral entente transcends the bonhomie of any two leaders.

As they celebrate this upward momentum, it is also the time to put in place the framework for a people-centric course for the bilateral relationship, one that can withstand any future domestic political swings or the ideological variation between political parties in India and continue benefitting populations on both sides.

Chirayu Thakkar is a joint doctoral candidate at the National University of Singapore and King’s College London. Twitter: @ThakkarChirayu

Dr Manjari Singh is an Associate Fellow, Center for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Twitter: @manjarijnu

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