Geopolitical convergences make India & Israel seemingly natural allies. But, economic & political issues have kept the relationship on the backburner. Modi’s visit to Israel will be a defining moment for India’s West Asia policy.
Born out of British colonial rule just a year apart in the late 1940s, the seemingly close ties between India and Israel, however, are a recent phenomenon. In 1949, at the two hundred and seventh plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, the issue of admitting Israel as a member of the UN was under debate. To lobby for its cause, Israel called on Albert Einstein, who wrote to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru stating, “It would be moral for the Jews to receive this small patch of land on which they were once sovereign.” Nehru’s response was in the negative and India, along with 11 other nations including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, voted against the decision stating that India ‘could not recognise an Israel which had been achieved through the force of arms and not negotiations’. Israel was subsequently admitted to the UN with 37 votes in favour, 12 against and 9 abstentions.
India officially recognised Israel in September 1950 following which Israel established its first immigration office in Mumbai. This was subsequently converted to a Consulate and in 1992 the two countries upgraded to full diplomatic relations by establishing embassies in their capitals. India and Israel have since enjoyed a stable bilateral equation based primarily around the agricultural, science and technology and defence sectors. There is also considerable engagement in merchandise trade in precious stones, primarily diamonds, which was also one of the first trade engagements which India and Israel shared as early as 1992.
This still nascent relationship is now set to get a big boost. Narendra Modi will visit Israel retracing the steps he had taken as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2006. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s announcement on Sunday, May 31, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be travelling to Israel on a bilateral visit created a flutter. Though the dates for the visit have not yet been announced, it will be a historic moment in Indo-Israeli relations, with Modi being the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the Jewish, West Asian nation.
The first Prime Ministerial level engagement between the two nations was in 2003, during Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s state visit. The visit which was made upon Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s invitation was a historic moment in Indo-Israeli ties culminating in the “Delhi Agreement on Friendship and Co-operation between India and Israel”. The Agreement promised to enhance co-operation in education, culture and travel, however no mention of defence trade was made.
India has historically aligned itself with the Palestinian cause, but in light of increasing Islamist attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere, India and Israel have steadily been improving ties. Indo Israeli defence trade saw a turning point during the Kargil war of 1999. India was beginning to face a shortage of ammunition and Israel was one of the only countries to directly aid India by providing ammunition, mortar and laser guided missiles. It followed this assistance with the export of Israeli Heron and Search UAVs for more accurate surveillance of border areas and better battlefield surveillance capabilities. India also purchased Barak-1 surface to air missiles from Israel at that time in a $270 million agreement, one of the largest deals signed between the two nations.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute database, from 2013 to 2014, India has been Israel’s largest defence trade partner, accounting for almost 64% of Israel’s total defence exports in that period. Israel is the third largest defence exporter to India after Russia and the United States. India for its part has played down this aspect of bilateral relations in the media as well in bilateral documents primarily due to the complex equation between Israel and the GCC, one of India’s largest sources of oil.
However, the evolving situation in West Asia has allowed India to be more pronounced in iterating its closeness with Israel. In 2012, an MEA statement about Israel’s actions in Gaza dropped the use of the word “condemn” and replaced it with “deeply concerned”. This was a move away from the strongly worded statements condemning Israeli actions which were issued consistently between 2002 and 2009. Experts believe that the onset of the Arab Spring diverted the attention of Indian Muslims from the Palestinian cause and that the GCC nations were also growing weary of Iran backed groups like Hezbollah and Hamas that are active in the region. These factors allowed India to assert the close ties it shares with Israel, without fear of any domestic political or religious backlash.
While the dates are yet to be declared, Modi’s visit is expected to bring these close relations under the spotlight. In February this year, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon arrived in India for the Aero-India exhibition accompanied by leading industrialists from Israel’s defence sector. According to reports, Israel has already completed deals worth over $10 billion with India and the figure is set to increase further. The visit will likely see the signing of deals to the tune of $1.5 billion for aerostat radars and airborne warning and control systems. In addition Israel and India are likely to step up joint development of missile systems and anti-tank weapons.
There is a large Indian diaspora that has settled in Israel as well, a fact that will play well to Modi’s affinity for engaging with NRIs and PIOs. A large number of Indian Jews migrated to Israel starting in the late 1940s and today there are over 45,000 persons of Indian origin. Of this the Bene-Israel Jewish community of Maharashtra, makes up the largest group. The Cochin Jews and the Baghdadi Jews make up the rest. According to official data Israelis of Indian origin have participated in gatherings of Marathi speakers from across the world and the fourth World Marathi Conference was held in Israel in the mid 1990’s.
While Indo-Israeli ties will move forward significantly as a result of this visit, India must be cautious that it does not do so at the cost of alienating the domestic Muslim population. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election in March this year is proof of the growing right wing tilt of Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s Palestine policies have even fractured ties with Israel’s long standing ally, the United States. Modi will have to be prepared to face criticism about deepening these ties at a time when Israel has been received international condemnation from the international community over its Palestine policy and 2014’s 50 day war in Gaza. However, the visit will put on display India’s pragmatism in its evolving West Asia policy, a move that has been welcomed by experts.