India’s foreign policy towards Israel has undergone a paradigm shift since 1992 in view of the changing global geopolitical dynamics, aggregating transformation in bilateral relations. Present government has brought to it a new energy and clarity of articulation. The official de-hyphenisation of its relations with Israel and Palestine mark a substantial change in its understanding of the Middle Eastern politics.
India and Israel established full diplomatic relations in 1992 and since then the bilateral relationship between the two countries has flourished at the economic, military, agricultural and political levels. Both countries see themselves as isolated democracies threatened by neighbors that train, finance and encourage terrorism, therefore both countries also view their cooperative relationship as a strategic imperative.
Relations between Israel and India have not always been warm. Although both the states have a common colonial past, their post-independence course was apparently diverse on account of different factors that kept them apart for a long period. While India led the Non-Aligned Movement and maintained close ties with the Arab world and the Soviet Union, Israel due to circumstantial reasons had to rely on United States and Western Europe. India’s large Muslim population was another major obstacle in building closer relationships with Israel.
However, as soon as India passed recognition to Israel and established diplomatic ties in 1992 the trade and strategic ties between the two states have witnessed an immense growth. The key to the growing India-Israel ties, however, is in the realm of security and defense. With the multi-billion dollars project for the modernization of Indian army India turned into a hot market in the west including Israel. India is the number one export target of Israel’s defense industries. Not only Israel has found a huge market for arms sale in India (about 7.2 billion dollars in 2018) the latter too has benefitted in availing the missiles, sensors, UAV surveillance systems, drones and air defense systems from Israel. Their relations have entered into a new phase and India as officially de-hyphenated its relation with Israel and Palestine marking a significant shift in India’s strategic thinking.
Indian Perspective of Palestine
India’s solidarity with Palestinian people and its support for Palestinian cause took shape during Indian freedom struggle against British colonialism. In 1938, on the proposal to create a homeland for Jews in Palestine, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “my sympathy for the Jews does not blind me to the requirements of Justice. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs’. In 1947 India voted against the partition of Palestine at the United Nations General Assembly and India was the only non-Arab and Non-Muslim country to do so. Post- Independence Indian foreign policy was based on the principle of “empathy with Palestine”. In 1974, India became the first non-Arab country to recognize Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinian.
India recognized the state of Palestine in 1988, when Palestine Authority (PA) a self- government body was created as a result of Oslo Peace accord. India voted in favour of UN Resolution against constructing West Bank wall by Israel in 2003 and voted for accepting Palestine as a full member of UNESCO in 2011. In 2012 India voted in favour of upgrading the status of Palestine to a ‘non-member state’ in United Nations.
Several factors counted for India’s pro-Palestine policy. The Indian leanings towards Palestine in the post-independence era are because of its belief that the Zionist movement is the creation of British and American imperialism which later on played important role in the creation of Israel. Influenced by socialism, Indian leadership during 1930s had an understanding that the Zionist movement is working under the influence of European capitalist ideas of ‘nationalism’ and ‘colonization’ that had made the creation of Israel imminent in the Middle East. In the meantime, a considerable size of Muslim Population of India was always sympathetic to the Muslim population in Palestine. India also did not want to annoy Arab states because of oil imports and the interests of more than 7 million Indians working in Arab world. India’s co-operation with the Soviet Union during cold war era and desire to counter Pakistan with the support of Arab nations was another reason for its pro-Palestine policy.
India-Israel Relations during and After Cold War Period
During cold war period India-Israel relations were marked by a degree of reservation or many times by distant hostility. India’s independence and Israel’s declaration of statehood came in successive years, but both nascent democracies chose divergent foreign policies. While Israel adopted Western-oriented foreign policy, India followed the non-aligned path and forged relations with several Arab states. Israel’s various Western pivots and Arab hostility made Prime Minister Nehru apprehensive of pursuing close diplomatic relations with Israel. Enlisting Arab support for the Kashmir cause was seen as crucial in those days. This, along with Indian sympathy for the Palestinian cause, delayed the establishment of official diplomatic relations between the two countries by almost 45 years till 1992.
Disintegration of the USSR in 1991 brought about a new era in India-Israel relations. During cold war era India was depended heavily on the Soviet Union for arms support and its disintegration posed serious questions to the Indian administration. In the post-cold war era, with the rise of United States as sole super power India turned to Israel, which had developed a competitive advantage in the armaments industry. It must be noted, however, that this change in attitude was influenced by many other reasons.
Firstly, with the fall of Soviet Union, India embarked on a process of economic liberalization that included a drastic reduction in import tariffs and the removal of restrictions on foreign direct investment. India also saw this as an opportunity to reposition itself in a new world order, and in 1992 established formal diplomatic relations with Israel. As its embassy opened in Tel Aviv, India cautiously built its relations with Israel while maintaining its official commitment to the Palestinian cause. Secondly, Israel signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and participated in various bilateral peace negotiations with Palestine under official international auspices in an attempt to resolve the conflict. Thirdly,the deep differences between Arab countries and India’s failure in acquiring Arab support for the Kashmir cause.
The 1980s saw a marked rise in Islamic terrorism in India and Israel. While Israel began to deal with the first Intifada, India faced a vigorous separatist movement in Kashmir, both of which resulted in the loss of numerous lives. The 1970s and 1980s also saw the weakening of the left-leaning parties of both countries – the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Labour Party. However, India-Israel relations have truly taken off with the ascension to power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right wing leader in 2014. The NDA governement led by Modi developed a close relationaship with his Israeli counterpart and became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in 2017. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to which PM Modi belongs, enjoys an ideological similarity to the Israeli Likud Party, with a common Islamic antipathy. So there was tectonic shift in the Indian foreign policy after 2014.
The Irreversible Progress
In 1992 when the government established full diplomatic relations, the bilateral relationship between the two countries has blossomed at the economic, military, agricultural, space research and political levels.Israel was one of the rare countries to directly help India during the Kargil War. In 2002 when India was planning to undertake a military strike against Pakistan as part of Operation Parakram(response to Indian Parliament attack), Israel supplied hardware through special planes. Now, India is the world’s largest buyer of Israeli weaponry and in 2013 India was the third largest trading partner of Israel in Asia. Apart from defense cooperation, Israel has intensified its cooperation in agriculture with the adoption of modern agricultural technologies to increase the productivity.
India traditionally believes in the two state solution and supports the establishment of a sovereign independent and a viable state of Palestine. However, over the years, the Indian government has diluted its reaction to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. In 2014 India favoured a UN resolution which established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law in the ‘Occupied Territories’ during ‘Operation Protective Edge’. In 2015 India abstained at the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) on a resolution welcoming the report of the Commission of Inquiry. It was the first time India refused to vote against Israel. But in May 2021 on the current hostilities between two parties, India at the UN Security Council meeting called for an immediate de-escalation of the situation.
India Needs to Balance its Approach
Israel wants India to end its pro-Palestine policy. Keeping in view the advances strategic understanding and the defense and technological ties with Israel, India can’t overlook the Israel’s expectations. However, while going beyond strategic relations with Israel, India cannot afford to ignore its crucial energy ties with Iran and the Gulf countries. Also, it should not be forgotten that India requires the firm endorsement of its candidature from the Arab countries that form a large group in the UN General Assembly. India has been very keen to preserve a pragmatic balancing act between regional players in the West Asian region like Saudi Arabia and Iran. On similar lines, India should be cautious enough while backing Israel and should adopt a more cautious approach while dealing with Israel and Palestine. Today, Israel is second only to Russia as India’s largest weapons supplier. But while Russian supplies fell by 47 percent in 2015-2019, imports from Israel increased by 175 percent and the Indian shares 46 percent of Israel’s exports. Both countries are part of the Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism and have signed agreements on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, cooperation in homeland security, protection of classified material, and cybersecurity. Officially, India now considers Israel a strategic partner as both countries—each under its right-wing leadership—position themselves as bastions of progress and democracy while surrounded by hostile Muslim nations. In this sense, they consider each other to be natural allies, engaged in a historic struggle against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalist forces.
Trade, cultural exchange, and strategic partnerships including the arms trade are, of course, the building blocks of international relations. But as India now openly expresses (and celebrates) its support for Israel at international forums and Israel, in return, expresses its support for India’s legal and constitutional initiatives, it is evident that the India-Israel relationship is no longer purely a matter of realpolitik; it is also being strengthened by a shared ideology. It may be too early to assess the long-term impact of such an alliance.