Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel on July 4 is historic for a variety of reasons, the most significant one being that in 25 years of established diplomatic ties, he will be the first Indian prime minister to visit the country. Israel is reportedly according him the same welcome that is typically reserved for the Pope and the President of the United States, thus underscoring the significance of the Indian-Israeli relationship. While the visit is laden with symbolic and ideological implications relevant to bilateral ties between the two nations, it also highlights the realistic and strategic progress they have made in the last two decades to strengthen cooperation.
Multiple accounts of the bilateral relationship convey this basic outline of the relationship – India was initially wary of establishing close ties with Israel for several reasons; Cold War politics; a legacy of Nehruvian foreign policy that focused on alliances with anti-imperialist and decolonized states – of which Israel was neither; and a lack of market power that compelled India to be dependent on the Arab states for energy needs. Even though India and Israel did not establish diplomatic ties until 1992, Israel, as President Pranab Mukherjee pointed out in his media interaction after returning from Tel Aviv in 2015, “has provided defence equipment, platforms and systems at a time when India needed them the most.” Apart from the aid provided during the Kargil War in 1999, Israel also secretly helped India during the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. This highlights the most significant aspect of India and Israel’s relationship; it has gone beyond ideological considerations and party politics, and been forged based on a realist view of mutual interests and benefit. Additionally, it is important to note that India’s relationship with Israel was spurred by foreign direct investment in the agricultural sector, which began in Congress-ruled ruled states like Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, and Punjab.
From 1992 onwards, successive Congress, BJP, UPA, and NDA governments have built a strong strategic partnership with Israel based on cooperation in the spheres of defence, intelligence, counter-terrorism, agriculture, cybersecurity, telecommunications, space, pharmaceuticals, IT etc. However, in contrast to the previous government’s more discreet approach towards Israel, and due to its preference for a more realistic and strategic vis a vis an ideological foreign policy, the Modi regime has acknowledged its relationship with Israel more publicly. In fact, one expert described the relationship as coming out from “under the carpet.” Israel also warmly welcomes this approach, as it strengthens the nation strategically and economically, and fundamentally affirms its right to exist. The personal relationship between Prime Ministers Modi and Netanyahu is also strong.
Another topic of discussion is the ‘de-hyphenation’ of India’s approach towards Israel and Palestine; since PM Modi is not visiting Ramallah, and an unnamed Indian foreign ministry official made a comment stating that a visit to Israel did not necessitate an official visit to Palestine. There have been noticeable changes in India’s rhetoric, and a departure from long standing trends on multilateral forums, including India’s abstention on the 2015 UNHRC resolution condemning Israel’s human rights violations, which caused anxiety in Palestine. This, however, does not signal an abandonment of India’s support towards Palestine; India still recognises Palestine, and refers to Mahmoud Abbas as the President of the State of Palestine. Abbas visited India earlier in May, and the Modi government has repeatedly reiterated its support towards Palestine.
Despite these changes, India is unlikely to scale back ties with Palestine any time soon, especially since its relationship with Palestine is crucial to maintain its relationship with the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It is also important to note that India has so far been fairly adept at balancing its relationships with Israel and Palestine, despite certain instances that have demonstrated that it is not always possible to keep its relationships completely conflict free. Thus, while ‘de-hyphenation’ gives India more room to advance it’s relationship with Israel, it also necessitates a more careful balancing act to assuage Palestine and its Arab partners.
Though India’s diplomatic overtures have certainly made a positive impact on Indo-Israeli ties, the strongest and most visible driver of the relationship between India and Israel is and has always been defence. India is one of Israel’s largest weapons buyers, and this deepening engagement in the defence sector has only progressed, despite concerns surrounding alleged corruption by Israeli weapons manufacturers. Under the Modi government, this cooperation has increased, with $2.6 billion worth of missile deals inked since April 2017 alone. Despite claims by both Israeli and Indian officials that this visit by Modi will not focus on defence cooperation, one can safely expect that along with the announced deals on space, development, water, and innovation, more arms and weapons technology agreements will be signed soon after this visit.
Proponents of the strengthened alliance between India and Israel – mainly the right wing – welcome Modi’s move towards deepening strategic and economic ties. Both the fringe elements and the more moderate right-wingers have lauded the move as one that demonstrates the BJP government’s and Modi’s image as a path breaker. This is probably because unlike previous administrations, PM Modi has been more open about India’s dealings with Israel, and has better projected the mutual strategic concerns the nations share. They especially welcome the proposed cooperation on counter-terrorism, as India is expressing a growing frustration towards internal and cross-border terrorist acts, by which it has been frequently targeted.
Opponents of the relationship – mostly members of the left wing – argue that this deepening engagement has the potential to further alienate Indian Muslims from the current government, and draw similarities between attitudes towards Muslims in Israel and the Hindu right’s derision towards Muslims. They caution against supporting a regime that is perpetrating the “oppression, colonisation and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people,” and draw parallels between Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the Indian State’s oppression in Kashmir. More moderate voices assert that India’s cooperation with Israel makes the Indian taxpayer a subsidiser of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and that a closer association with Israel undermines India’s credibility as a humane democracy, which could potentially compromise its interests.
While some of the support stems from certain misguided perceptions, and some of the critiques are extreme, it is important to acknowledge the potential pitfalls of a burgeoning relationship with Israel. The Modi government must not upset the balance it has struck, and must be careful of the way it expresses support for Israel and Palestine in multilateral forums. While Israel might try to gain further support from India in places like the UN, PM Modi should not let the lure of further defence cooperation preclude the sound foreign policy precedent his government has set thus far. At the same time, India cannot criticise Israel on international forums for its human rights violations, since that would invite criticism on its own activity in Kashmir.
Even so, overall India’s growing relationship with Israel has strengthened the Modi government’s standing both domestically and internationally. While some may argue that PM Modi’s policies aren’t purely strategically motivated and exhibit the ideological leanings of the Hindu right, so far, his strategy with Israel has been well executed and based on realistic perceptions of national interest. As long as the Modi government maintains this relatively balanced approach and does not move to a further extreme, it can expect further beneficial strategic and economic cooperation in the Middle East.