Even though the election manifesto of India’s ruling BJP stresses improving relations with the country’s immediate neighbors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strong ties with Israel have raised the possibility of a deeper engagement between both countries. According to news reports, Modi has expressed his desire to “deepen and develop” ties with Israel to Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu. While the Indian National Congress-led government did not initiate any diplomatic outreach towards Israel, Modi visited Tel Aviv in 2006 when he held the post of chief minister in Gujarat. India has collaborated with Israel in many areas, especially counter-terrorism and defense. Gujarat, in particular, has deep infrastructure development and investment links with Israel.
India recognized the State of Israel in 1950 and established de-jure diplomatic ties. But it took until 1992 to establish full diplomatic relations. The Indian leadership was sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle and opposed the creation of a state based on religion. It’s large Muslim population and ongoing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir were critical factors in determining New Delhi’s approach to relations with Israel. They were compounded by the possibility of Arab support for Pakistan in the event India’s relations with Israel improved.
India was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, which combined with Israel’s invasion of Sinai in 1956 and the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, also influenced ties. The end of the Cold War and India’s economic liberalization created space for relations with Israel to improve. After the former Soviet Union and China established diplomatic relations with Israel, India announced its decision to follow suit.
Even in the absence of diplomatic relations, India and Israel developed cooperation over defense, counter-terrorism, trade, and the exchange of technology. This cooperation also came to include the space programs of both countries. Israeli President Ezer Weizman visited India in 1996, accompanied by a large business delegation, intending to expand economic relations. Indo-Israeli trade has increased from $200 million in 1992 to $4.4 billion in 2013.
Former Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh also visited Israel and set up the Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism in 2001. Brajesh Mishra, India’s former national security advisor addressed the American Jewish Committee in 2003 and called for a “viable alliance” against international terrorism and the development of “multi-lateral mechanisms” to counter it. In response, Israel stated that there was an “unwritten and abstract axis” between the U.S., India and Israel to combat terrorism.
A growing Indo-Israeli military dimension was codified in 2001 through the Joint Defense Cooperation Group. The group meets annually to institutionalize defense deals, such as the procurement of weapons, technology transfers, co-production of military equipment, and joint military exercises, and other aspects of their security relationship. India constitutes the largest market for the Israeli defense industry, and Israel is the second largest supplier of arms to India, after Russia. According to 2014 estimates, India accounts for $1 to $1.5 billion of Israel’s $7 billion total defense exports.
During its wars with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965 and 1999, India received military assistance from Israel in the form of intelligence gathering, cooperation to stop the funding of terrorism, joint military exercises and the supply of weapons. Former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, Yosef Lapid, did not deny assertions about Israel’s involvement in helping India combat the insurgency in Kashmir.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to New Delhi in 2003 signaled deepening ties between both countries. In addition to reiterating their cooperation over terrorism, the states signed a number of bilateral agreements. An invitation to visit Tel Aviv was also extended to Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. However, with ascension to power of the Congress-led UPA government in 2004, left-wing parties in the coalition drove a shift in the nature of the bilateral relationship.
India-Israel defense ties deepened with low-level reciprocal military delegations, but the new government did not carry forward the momentum of previous high-level engagements. Former Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna’s visit to Israel in 2012 was the only senior ministerial level visit during the Congress-led UPA government’s tenure from 2004 to 2014. However, his visit was showcased as a “regional visit,” and included the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank, Jordan and the UAE.
Modi, as the chief minister of Gujarat, expanded trade relations with Israel beyond the realm of defense and the diamond trade. The new initiatives included pharmaceuticals, water management, water recycling plants, agro-research, advanced agriculture technologies, and solar power. Modi invited Israel to partner in the 2014 Gujarat Agro Tech Global Fair, and the countries proposed setting up a corpus fund for industrial development. Jonathan Miller, Israel’s Consulate General in Mumbai, stated that the corpus would provide financial support to Indian and Israeli firms for industrial research. A twin-city proposal between Vadodara and Ashkelon to enhance cooperation is also being considered.
Following Modi’s electoral victory, there is increased speculation that India’s ties with Israel will improve. There is also a possibility that Modi will become the first Indian head of state to visit Israel. The new foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, has also stressed the importance of bilateral relations between India and Israel. She is the former chairwoman of the Indo-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group (2006-2009). During a visit to Israel in 2008, she called Tel Aviv a “reliable partner,” and lauded the Israelis for “demonstrating their reliability during the Kargil war.” Since assuming office, she has been in contact with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann, and has been invited to visit Israel to strengthen ties.
It is likely that Indo-Israel ties will expand in the political, economic and strategic realms. Israel’s Ambassador to India, Alon Ushpiz, stressed that the bilateral relationship has surpassed a “buyer-seller relationship,” and Israel’s long experience of working jointly with Modi has yielded tangible results. He conveyed Tel Aviv’s hope that under the new Indian government, both countries will fully realize their potential for cooperation. Counter-terrorism, defense cooperation and trade have been the hallmark of this relationship. However, it is likely that Modi will boost diplomatic relations by delinking Indo-Israeli relations from India’s domestic politics, and its ties with the Arab world.
Kanchi Gupta is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, India. She is a researcher for the West Asia programme at ORF.