Apart from the shared values of democracy and freedom, India and Israel enjoy a unique relationship. While a dominant section of Hindu society largely admired, Jewish nationalism and concurred with the moral and political base of creation of Israel, India’s official position on Israel was different. Having suffered the poignant partition along religious lines and obtained independence from the colonial European clutches, India strongly upheld self-determination. India supported the cause of Palestine. Consequently, it voted against the partition of Palestine and Israel’s admission into UN in 1949. Being a strong advocate of the Non-aligned Movement, India had close relations with Arab League and Russia, while Israel aligned with US and European World. In 1955, Prime Minister Nehru dropped his plans of attending the Bandung conference to appease the Arab World. India didn’t want to antagonize its 120 million strong Muslim population and the Arab World.
Though India recognized state of Israel in 1950 and allowed it to open embassy in Mumbai, Delhi established diplomatic relations with Israel only in 1992 during the regime of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. For several decades, India adopted an anti-Israeli policy in line with the popular communist view. For long opposing Israel and its policies was considered progressive. During the cold-war era, bilateral relations were on a low key and largely informal. India established military ties with Israel in 1960’s and sought limited assistance from it during the 1962 and 1965 wars. Israel was one of the first few countries to recognize Bangladesh after the liberation war of 1971. Congress and left-leaning regimes, never publicly acknowledged the help provided by Israel. After the collapse of Soviet Union, strategists began a concerted campaign for normalization of ties with Israel. Kuwait war and Madrid Peace Conference changed Indian stance. In December 1991, India voted for repealing the resolution of 1975 that equated Zionism with racism. Finally, in January 1992, India adopted policy of engagement as opposed to Isolation and irreversibly altered the Indo-Israeli policy (1). During the brief rule of Janata party from 1977-79, Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dyan made a secret visit to India (2).
Moreover, when sanctions on arms and technological transfers were imposed in India following the nuclear tests in 1998, Israel was willing to supply arms and weaponry during Kargil war of 1999. The crucial intelligence inputs and imagery provided by Israel eventually turned the tide in favor of India and Indian army could successfully hoist the Indian flag in Kargil. During the Operation Parakram launched in 2002, Israel supplied hardware through special planes. But still India failed to publicly acknowledge Israeli partnership.
While Indira Gandhi followed her father’s footsteps, Rajiv Gandhi perturbed by Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear program and covert operations aspired to build relations with Israel and met Israeli officials openly. But the real turn around in the Indo-Israeli relationships can be observed from 1992. The tantalizing closeness between India and Israel can be attributed to people to people connect. Judaism is one of the first foreign religions to enter India. India is the only country where Jews were never persecuted. Jews arrived on shores of India in different batches.
India has the fourth largest population of Jews after Israel, Russia and Iran. There are six Jewish groups in India- Cochin Jews, Chennai Jews, Bene Israel (Maharashtrian) Jews, Baghdadi Jews, Bnei Menashe (Mizo and Kuki tribes) and Bene Epharim (Telugu Jews). After 1950, Jews of Indian origin migrated to Israel and settled in a place called Dimona which is now termed as Mini India. Also, several Indians travelled to Israel to obtain training in agriculture and community development courses. Above all, India secretly admired Israel for its outstanding military prowess.
India and Israel, both democracies, are incessantly under threat of belligerent neighbors that nurture, harbor and encourage terrorism. Despite being a victim of asymmetric warfare waged by its regional adversary, India remained a soft state. While India continues to silently bear the brunt of covert operations and terrorist attacks, Israel never winks. The retributive missions (Operation Wrath of God to avenge the 1972 massacre), rescue operations (Operation Entebbe or thunderbolt, Operation Isotope), daring military mission and audacious cross-border raids against operatives that threatened national security continues to galvanize Indian public and military experts as well.
India and Israel obtained independence from Britain within a gap of few months and both faced the anarchy, chaos and finally waged wars. But the scientific, economic and technological resurgence of Israel despite the lack of any natural resources is truly inspiring. Currently Indo-Israeli relations are based on the four pillars or areas of cooperation-agriculture, water conservation, solar energy and diary production. The military cooperation which was foundation for bilateral ties has now proportionately increased. Though both countries have congenial relations ever since 1992, Congress always tried to downplay ties with Jewish country when it is in power. However, defense cooperation remained intact. In fact, in 2009, Israel displaced Russia as the largest arms supplier to India. On the other hand, the NDA regime eloquently displayed its camaraderie with Israel. During the NDA regime, L. K. Advani became the first Indian minister to visit Israel in 2000. In 2003 Israel President Ariel Sharon visited India. By now it is evident that ascendancy of BJP is synonymous to greater visibility of bilateral ties between the two.
Gradually, there has been a swift policy change towards Israel, India stopped initiating anti-Israel resolutions based on the reevaluation that pro-Arab stance isn’t rewarded by the Arab World. Arab countries never backed India on Kashmir issue. OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) firmly stood by Pakistan and built support for Islamist terror operatives. India began to realize that if countries like Jordan could support Palestinian cause and carry on business with Israel, there is no point why India shouldn’t adopt the same policy.
After Narendra Modi’s spectacular victory in 2014, Indo-Israeli relations entered a new era. Bidding farewell to diffidence, India openly and enthusiastically engaged with the Jewish nation. In September 2014 along the sidelines of UN General Assembly sessions, Modi met his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu who announced that “sky is the limit” for the bilateral ties. After Modi assumed power, India purchased arms worth $662 million (which is much greater than the total Israeli purchases in the last three years), successfully tested Barak-8 anti-missiles system. As the chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi actively forged ties with Israel for investment and technology cooperation. In 2006, Modi visited Israel upon invitation when countries like US denied visa to him. Hence it was widely speculated that Modi will infuse new energy into the bilateral ties.
With NDA headed by Modi in power now, it is speculated that bilateral ties will be upswing. As expected, India abstained from voting at UNHRC on Israel’s Operation Protective Edge launched against Palestine. Similarly, it didn’t pass the resolution backed by Congress and Communist parties in Indian Parliament condemning Israel over conflict in Gaza. Unlike his predecessors, who repudiated Israeli partnership, Modi’s affirmative Israeli policy is not shy of openly endorsing friendship with the Jewish nation. Soon, rumors started making rounds that “India may end support to Palestine at UN”. Putting rest to rumors, MEA reiterated that “there is no change in India’s policy of extending traditionally strong support for the Palestinian cause while maintaining good relations with Israel”. To this end, India voted for a resolution on “the creation of database of companies operating within illegal Israeli settlements strengthening the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS), a global movement” (that steps up economic and political pressure on Israel to comply with stated goals of BDS). Thus, India enacted a balancing act.
In October 2015, President Pranab Mukherjee embarked on a three-nation state visit to Jordan, Palestine and Israel. He became the first Indian president to address the Knesset. This was followed by Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Israel and Palestine in January, where she stated that Indo-Israeli relations are of “utmost importance” to government of India. Later, Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh visited Israel in September to bolster the Indo-Israeli collaboration in agriculture. Reports indicate that Prime Minister Modi will travel to Israel early next year.
President Rivlin’s Visit
Currently, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin carrying a message of friendship, arrived in New Delhi on a six-day visit on November 15th. He is the first President to visit India in the past two decades. President Ezer Weizman was the last President to visit India in 1997. The visit marks the 25th year of establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. Accompanied by a large entourage of Israeli business men and heads of educational institutions, President Rivlin will visit Karnal, Chandigarh, Agra to oversee the functioning and progress of collaborative projects of both countries. In his final stopover, he will visit Mumbai Chabad house where six Jews were killed.
Reinforcing the growing engagement with both countries, in presence of Prime Minister Modi and President Rivlin, 10 MoU’s were exchanged. These included pacts to strengthen cooperation in agriculture, investment, education, water resource management, science and technology. The Indo-Israeli Agricultural Project led by government of India in partnership with MASHAV (Israel’s international development and cooperation agency) established 15 centers of excellence in agriculture across 9 states in India. Indian farmers had immensely benefitted from the Israeli technology and training in horticulture, micro-irrigation, cultivation, post-harvest management, orchard, canopy and nursery management.
The bilateral trade between India and Israel has increased from $200 million in 1992 to $5.19 billion in 2011 and hovered around $4.5 billion ever since. Initially the trade in diamonds formed the bulk of it and slowly it diversified into sectors like IT, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, telecom and home security. India is the third largest Asian trade partner of Israel. Israel has taken a strategic decision to strengthen economic relations with China, Japan and India. FDI investment of Israel in India during 2000-2013 was $73.7 million. India and Israel space agencies revived contracts and enhanced cooperation in cyber security. Both countries are likely to seal a free trade agreement. The Israeli government is now keen on engaging in the Make in India initiative. Academic cooperation has also increased considerably and currently more than 10% of foreign exchange students in Israel are Indians.
Besides, these sectors, the bilateral relations between the countries are strengthened by military cooperation and defense purchases. President Rivlin during his visit agreed to intensify cooperation in combatting terrorism. Both countries have earlier constituted a Joint Working Group in counter-terrorism, signed three agreements in Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, Cooperation in Homeland and Public Security and Protection of Classified Material.
The statement “Love it or hate it but you can’t ignore it” aptly describes Israel. Jews across the World suffered a lot in Holocaust. The hostility endured by Israel is unparalleled. But now tectonic shifts in geopolitical alignments are shattering old narratives. The historic nuclear deal and subsequent menacing rise of Iran has changed the dynamics in the Middle East. Suddenly, there is a strategic recalibration of Israel, anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli narrative has disappeared. Saudi Arabia is now itching to court Israel, to take on its bitter rival Iran. Consequently, the Palestinian issue has become a lost cause. Further, with the rise of IS and eventual slipping over of the nemesis to Turkey, Erdogan buried hatchet with Israel and began restoring ties with Tel Aviv. With the discovery of natural gas reserves and oil fields off Israeli coast, its Mediterranean neighbors keen on building economic cooperation. With these propitious developments, Israel now donned the hat of energy superpower in the region.
Countries are now vying to forge ties with Israel for its military acumen, innovation, technological expertise and finally as an energy exporter. Also, as Russia eyes to evolve as key players in the region, it is has become more conciliatory towards Israel. Of late, China has undertaken Israel’s Ashdod port construction project under the Silk Road Economic Belt which is worth $1 billion and extensively developed ties with start-ups and educational institutes in the Jewish state. Japan is not far behind, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, attended the Israel Innovation Forum with Japanese business in 2015 and got enthused by Israeli innovation and start-up culture.
Even Baltics are fostering links with Israel. Not the least, the US, always had a trusted military ally in the US (3). Unfortunately, in India still old ideologies still hold a sway. Several organization including CPI-M (L) and AISA signed a petition to condemn President Rivlin’s visit to India. Countries are now aspiring to engage with Israel for various reasons. Israel is no longer a pariah state as portrayed and envisaged by ideologists. India despite having traditional and strong links with Jews, overpowered by approach of appeasing Arab World allowed the bilateral ties to fester by failing to openly endorse the partnership. It is now 25 years since India established diplomatic links with the tiny country tucked in a corrupt and bellicose neighborhood. The dillydallying approach and lack of affirmative stance has had its toll on the bilateral links. Time is ripe for strengthening of Indo-Israeli relations and Prime Minister must soon embark on a visit to Israel to emphatically assert India’s engagement.