India and Israel gained their independence within months of each other, but found themselves headed in pointedly different directions for nearly four decades. India assumed leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement that maintained close relations with the Arab world and the Soviet Union, while Israel linked its future to close ties with the United States and Western Europe.
India and Israel established full diplomatic relations in 1992 and since then the bilateral relationship between the two countries has blossomed at the economic, military, agricultural and political levels. Over the last 25 years, bilateral trade between the two countries has increased from $200 million to more than $4 billion (excluding defence). Israeli supplied weapons aided India in winning the Kargil War against Pakistan in 1999. Currently, India is the largest arms buyer from Israel.
Israel: India’s Mistress?
It was often said that India treats Israel as a mistress: that it is happy to have an affair behind the curtains but is not prepared to acknowledge this relationship in the open.
New Delhi voted to recognize Israel in 1950, but Cold War alignments, fear of alienating its large Muslim population, and its need to maintain strong ties to the Arab world for oil, remittances, and Kashmir issue resulted in New Delhi adopting an unsympathetic posture toward Israel. Through most of its post-independence history, India benefitted privately from Israel while refusing to publicly acknowledge it.
Coming out of the closet
Relations between India and Israel are experiencing a diplomatic renaissance. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is accredited for investing personally in the India-Israel relationship and for finally, de-hyphenating India’s relationship with Israel from Palestine. It started with the momentous and path-breaking visit by PM Narendra Modi to Israel in July 2017, the first by an Indian Prime Minister after establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992.
Currently, it is the most pro-Israel government New Delhi has ever seen. The relationship has now emerged in the open as a highly promising, normal partnership.
Marriage made in heaven
Prime Minister Modi devoted abundant attention, time and care to be with PM Netanyahu during the latter’s stay in the country. Personal chemistry and bonhomie, of course, plays a useful role in advancing relations between two countries but this is possible only when there is a wide congruence of mutual interest.
India needs technology, innovation, defence equipment, cooperation in counter-terrorism, training in intelligence gathering etc. from Israel, all of which are required to make India a secure, stable and prosperous nation with a better standard of living for its people. For Israel, in addition to the huge market for its technology as well as defense products that India represents, the enormous intangible benefit is also the acceptance it receives from the largest democracy. More than 30 countries of the UN do not recognize Israel. Hence, being accepted as a friend by India holds special value and significance for Israel. It is a win-win partnership for both the countries.
During my visit to Israel earlier this month as a part of the World Governance Expedition organized by Vision India Foundation on the invitation of Israel’s Ministry of External Affairs, I observed the cultural connection and interpersonal relations are a significant element of India-Israel partnership. India is one of the few countries in the world where Jews have not faced anti-Semitism. Jews have come to India in different waves over the last two thousand years and lived in different parts of the country without facing any discrimination.
Future of the relationship
Although it was India’s Congress Party that normalized relations with Israel, ties flourished under the country’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Leaders in both countries expressly emphasized the ideological affinity their nations shared as democracies and longstanding victims of terrorism.
Following the Congress Party’s return to power in 2004, however, New Delhi appeared to revert to past tendencies, preferring cooperation with Israel behind closed doors. The results of 2019 general elections could lead to a retreat in the advancing relationship if Narendra Modi does not come back to power.
Nurit Tunari, Honorable Minister Counselor with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, slightly disagrees. In one of my conversations with her during the trip, she proclaimed that “Even though the good relations between the leaders and the governments of Modi and Netanyahu are well known, relations between Israel and India are not dependent on the ruling party and have successfully passed tests of government change. The relationship is based on shared values and interests and the principles of democracy. I would add that there is a special feeling and similarity between Jews and Indians, and any Indian who visited Israel and every Israeli who visited India will agree with it.”
It is imperative that for the partnership to realise its full potential, both India and Israel behave as mature democracies and try to understand and appreciate the compulsions of each other on a variety of regional and international issues. It could lead to a healthy and strong relationship between these two major powers in the international system.