Diplomatic history of India-Israel ties revealed that the relations between the two states have developed from politico-strategic aversion to deepening strategic partnership and military cooperation. One could observe various phases in the evolution of India-Israel relations. Both structural compulsions and ideational factors played an important role in formulating, shaping and revising India’s policy towards Israel.
In the formative years of India’s grand strategy, engagement with Israel was almost neglected and nature of bilateral relations has been very limited. Indian policy towards Zionism and Zionist effort for national homeland for Jews was evolved during its freedom struggle against British Raj. Indian national liberal leadership did not support the Zionist effort to establish national homeland for the Jewish people. Zionist diplomacy could not convince Mahatma Gandhi to support its demand of homeland for Jews. Taking a pro-Arab stand independent India did not support the partition plan of mandated Palestine at UN and voted against this plan on November 29, 1949. India also voted against Israel’s admission in United Nations in 1949.
Change in the Indian stance towards the State of Israel appeared when India extended its recognition to Israel in 1950 and gave permission to open Israeli consulate in India. This started another phase of limited diplomatic relationship between India and Israel however India’s pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian policy remained unchanged. India supported Arab states in their conflict with Israel.
Despite India’s pro-Arab stand, Israel always has been hopeful regarding positive development of India-Israel ties. Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion stated in 1958 in Israeli Knesset that “it may be assumed that Nehru has his own reasons for this attitude…but it is clear that these are connected with tactics, not principles and I hope they are only temporary”. Israel also responded positively to India’s need whenever such a situation arose. During India-China war of 1962, India look forward for military help from Israel and request was fulfilled with the transfer of military equipment. Israel also transferred needed military platform to India during India’s war with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.
But Israeli hopes of normalisation of India-Israel ties could not fructified and India denied establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel until the end of 20th century. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi did not see any benefit in engagement with Israel. Cold war and bipolar structure at global level, Arab-Israel conflict at regional level and India’s strategic need and national development influenced the strategic thinking of then leadership.
In the end of 20th century, India was compelled to revise and rectify its policy towards Israel. End of cold war, disintegration of Soviet Union and emergence of uni-polar structure at global level, decline in Arab-Israel conflict and beginning of peace process at regional level and India’s economic and security concern at national level played an important role in reassessment of India’s Israel policy. In this new structural realities PM Narasimha Rao revise and rectify India’s Israel policy for mutual benefit. Despite being a Congress leader, PM Rao was not obsessed with traditional pro-Arab legacy of the party. He seemed to be more inclined towards realism rather than Nehruvian liberal internationalism.
Bilateral ties underwent heavy change with the establishment of the diplomatic relations with the State of Israel in January 1992 almost after the four decades of its independence. This proved to be the beginning of new phase in the evolution of India-Israel relations. Israeli President Ezer Weizman visited India in 1997 and a weapon deal was negotiated for the purchase of much needed Barak I surface to air missiles. When India concluded its Pokharan II nuclear tests in 1998, Israel was among the short list of nations which did not criticise India. Once the diplomatic relations has been established with Israel, their movement into the direction of developing strategic partnership soon achieved. Since then India and Israel developed very close relations in various field to the extent of strategic partnership. In the changed international and regional environment, there emerged mutuality of national interest between both the states which became the driving force for shaping the bilateral relations.
However, one could also observe point of change in India’s outlook towards Israel since the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel particularly under NDA I regime, UPA regime and NDA II regime. One could experience the alteration of India’s stand regarding low or high profile nature of relationship, visibility of the ties and issues related to Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
NDA I (National Democratic Alliance I) regime under PM Atal Bihari Bajpayee gave a further push to intensify India-Israel relations. An Israeli commentator Herb Keinon stated that “Indo-Israeli ties in the beginning were kept largely under the radar screen until the BJP came into power in 1999”. As a political party, BJP had been vocal in establishing close India-Israel ties. Structural factor related to India’s national security threat arising out of Kargil conflict with Pakistan also proved to be a mile stone in cementing India-Israel ties. Israeli military help to India proved decisive in this conflict. PM Bajpayee changed the course of bilateral relations qualitatively. Jaswant Singh became the first foreign minister of India to visit Israel in 2000. The visit resulted in the establishment of the joint anti-terror commission.
Relations strengthened with the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to India in 2003. This was the first ever visit to India by any Israeli PM. This visit gave a high profile touch and visibility to bilateral relations. During these diplomatic engagement both India and Israel condemned cross-border terrorism and displayed their commitment in intelligence-sharing on terror network. NDA I signalled that it is interested in ‘taking the relationship out of the closet and to different plane’. Bajpayee government expressed its concerns regarding Israeli-Palestinian violence and avoided any condemnation of Israel. This was an important development regarding India’s policy towards Israeli-Palestinian conflict. NDA I avoided taking side in this conflict. Rather, it urged both “the parties to end all violent activity without conditions, cease provocations and defuse the situation”. NDA I regime also condemned the act of terror targeting Israeli citizen and categorically stated that “such act of violence cannot be justified on any grounds.”
During one decade (2004-2014) of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) regime led by PM Manmohan Singh, bilateral beneficial cooperation in commercial, military and agriculture field continued to develop and expand. During this period bilateral trade increased significantly and Israel has emerged as one of the biggest supplier of military hardware to India. However, UPA regime maintained a low profile in India-Israel engagement and relations were kept behind the curtain. Bilateral relationship under the UPA regime witnessed very low visibility. No high level political engagement took place in this period. During this period, the only high level visit to Israel that took place in 2012 was by foreign minister S. M. Krishna. Bilateral ties particularly in military sector ‘went back into closet’. UPA regime’s diplomatic behaviour towards Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a bit different than that of NDA I. During the UPA regime, India has strongly criticised Israeli policies towards Palestinian territories. It has not only condemned ‘incursion into Gaza by Israeli ground and other forces’ but also ‘unequivocally condemns the large-scale and indiscriminate Israeli bombing of Lebanon.’
NDA II under PM Narendra Modi has given a boost to India-Israel ties to a new level of dynamism. India’s Israel policy under PM Modi reflected the logical culmination of the diplomatic process that started in 1992. India-Israel relations under PM Modi witnessed a visible speedy movement towards multi-dimensional beneficial cooperation where ‘sky is the limit’. In order to deepen the scope of Indo-Israeli relations, many qualitative changes have taken place in India’s Israel policy under Modi regimes. Modi regime has expressed its willingness to harness full potential of India-Israel relations.
Departing from the earlier policy framework of keeping low profile in engaging Israel, Modi regime gave a high visibility and high profile touch to India-Israel diplomatic relations. High level political, diplomatic and military exchanges that took place between the two countries under Modi regime within three years revealed the development of new high profile relations that kept aside the previous hesitation to bring the bilateral relations in public gauge. Summit level meeting between PM Narendra Modi and PM Binyamin Netanyahu at the sideline of UN General Assembly in New York in September 2014 not only broke the precedent but also reflected the priority of the Modi regime regarding Israel. This was the first meeting between Israeli and Indian Prime Ministers since PM Ariel Sharon visited New Delhi in 2003. Home Minister Rajnath singh, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and President Pranav Mukharji’s visit to Israel and former Israeli President Shimon Perez and Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon visit to India witnessed a high level political engagement between the two countries. PM Modi’s forthcoming stand alone visit to Israel in July 2017 would be a historic event as this is the first ever visit to Israel by any Indian head of the government.
Modi regime also gave a positive impetus to already existing mutual beneficial bilateral defence relationship. Indo-Israeli defence relationship has been taken ‘out of the closet.’ Moshe Ya’alon became the first Israeli defence minister to visit India to attend ‘Aero India’ show in 2015 after the establishment of full diplomatic relations between both the countries. Previously there has been a tendency in India to keep the military and defence relationship under the veil of secrecy. Now under the NDA II regime, the mindset of hesitation in talking openly about defence partnership has been shunned away.
Both the countries have developed deep military relations as India is emerged as a huge market for Israeli arms and military technologies. In orders to boost India’s fire power and strike capability NDA II decided to purchase 8356 Spike anti-tank guided missile and 321 launchers in October 2014, 10 missile-armed Heron TP drones in September 2015 and two Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) in March 2016. India also signed a deal worth $2 billion with Israel to procure advanced medium-range surface-to-air missile (MRSAM) systems in early 2017.
Moving beyond buyer-seller framework, India-Israel defence relationships also include joint development and co-production. Israel expressed its willingness to take part actively in PM Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. Successful testing of the jointly developed Barak-8 warship missile system in 2014 and 2015 witnessed the bright example of joint ventures in the defence sector. Sale of Spike missiles would be followed by transfer of technology to defence PSU Bharat Dynamics Limited for large-scale manufacture. Rafael group of Israel and Kalyani group of India will setup a joint venture unit to build weapon system in India. It could begin with the production of Spike anti-tank guided Missile. Another joint venture in defence sector between Rafael of Israel and Reliance group of India will be setup soon to produce air-to-air missiles, air defence systems and observation balloons.
In order to expand agriculture cooperation, both the countries decided to increase the number of centre of excellence in agricultural field up to 29 in near future. India could be benefitted from Israel regarding post-harvest management, cold storage technology, packaging and dairy products. In January 2016, declaration was signed towards advancing the third phase of Indo-Israel Agricultural Cooperation Project.
Modi regime has fully de-hyphenated India’s diplomatic engagement with Israel and Palestinian Authority. PM Modi has displayed equidistance towards Israel and Palestine and denied to take sides in their conflict. Previously India’s Israel policy was deeply influenced by and dependent on Palestinian cause. Now Israel has emerged as an independent variable replacing its earlier status of dependent variable in India’s diplomatic engagement in West Asian dynamics. Modi regime refused to take sides over Gaza conflict in 2014 and ruled out to criticise Israeli military operation in Gaza. It also forestalled a resolution that was demanded by opposition parties in Rajya Sabha. Rather India suggested that Israel and Palestinian should have peace talks for ending the violence.
PM Modi’s speech at United Nations in September 2014 also reflects the change in the previous traditional pattern because it did not talked about Palestinian issue. India’s voting pattern at United Nations regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict also witnessed a change. In July 2015 India denied to vote against Israel and abstained from a UN Human Right Council (UNHRC) vote for the adoption of a UN Inquiry Commission report on Gaza conflict of 2014. India’s abstention at UNHRC vote on Gaza conflict was hailed in Israel as a qualitative leap in bilateral relations. India also refused again to vote against Israel and opted for abstention during a UN Economic and Social Council vote.
What leads to the intensification of India-Israel relationship under NDA II regime? Strategic thinking at decision making level rather than structural compulsions at global and regional level has given a dynamic push to India-Israel ties. This reflects the change in India’s the strategic culture under PM Modi in which Israel has emerged as one of the very important component of India’s Grand Strategic calculation.
Modi regime’s grand strategic vision of India’s rise and development is deeply connected with intensification and diversification of India-Israel relations. Role of ‘state of the art’ and ‘cutting edge technology’ is very crucial for the rise of India. PM Modi understands that relations with Israel are much more meaningful and just not confined in the any particular realm of agriculture and military field. Modi regime’s grand strategy towards Israel is also connected with neo-realist argument so far as the threat to India’s national security is concerned. Terrorism is a stumbling block in India’s rise and a persistent threat to its national security and survival. PM Modi’s visit to Israel will give further impetus to deal with India’s security concerns.
That is why PM Modi’s forthcoming stand alone visit to Israel in July 2017 is deeply related to his effort for writing and implementing the script of India’s rise. This visit would be a milestone in cementing India-Israel relations towards beneficial multifaceted bilateralism.