Fast friends: How India slowly, but surely built ties with Israel

India and Israel have shared a rather rocky relationship in the past. In 1950, India was one of the very few countries that recognised Israel as a nation since its inception. But that is the only action of goodwill it extended towards Israel till the opening up of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1992.

In those 40-odd years, Israel was a dependable friend. In fact, even today, Israel is, what can be called, a “natural ally” to India. Both countries face certain similar challenges, and both can benefit greatly from sharing these experiences and various forms of expertise to solve them. For instance, India has a lot to learn from Israel in the field of agriculture. Moreover, given urban India’s water shortage problems, we could pick Israel’s brain on their water conservation techniques.

Much like India, Israel also faces a very hostile neighbourhood. As a result, they have been compelled to innovate in the field of defence also and they had done so, with much success. Fortunately for India, Israelis have always been in favour of sharing these innovations with India. In the past, Israel has also expressed interest in collaborating with ISRO and in the area of software development.

To take this forward, one must be aware of the history between the two nations. Broadly, the Indo-Israel relationship can be divided into three time periods.

The first time period spanned from 1950 till 1992.

The second time period stared after 1992 and continued till Narendra Modi became the PM of India.

 The third time period starts in 2014 and stretches into the present.

From 1950 to 1992

After getting independence, India opted for a non-aligned approach to foreign policy. As a newly independent nation at the time, India did not want to pick sides between the two cold warring factions. She believed herself to be the leader of the Non-Alignment Movement, but India’s soft spot for the communist USSR was evident. India enjoyed USSR’s backing in many ways, and as a result found her hands tied in many matters of foreign policy. USSR supported the Arab states, by virtue of which India also supported the Arab states in their fight against Israel.

The other reason to support the Arab states was due to the domestic political scenario at the time. For most of these years, India’s government at the Centre was led by the Indian National Congress (INC). The erstwhile political class thought that siding with Israel would mean siding with the Jewish cause. This would not have boded well with India’s Muslim population. These are the two main reasons for India’s alliance with the Arab states over Israel. But the question is whether the Arab states reciprocated this kinship.   

The Indian-Arab relationship was never an equal one. From 1950 till 1992, Israel fought the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 with various Arab states. India condemned Israel in both the wars. Even in the 1973 war, which was provoked by Egypt, India praised the attack on Israel. 

During this time period, India herself fought two wars with Pakistan. And when the time came for Arab states to show their solidarity with India, they turned their back. Most of the Arab states either remained neutral or sided with Pakistan during the wars. Israel came to India’s aid and provided the military with weaponry, training, and intelligence during the 1971 war, which led to the independence of Bangladesh.

However, India’s stance changed drastically after 1992, the year when India and Israel opened up formal diplomatic ties.

From 1992 to 2014

The second phase was a significantly better time for the Indo-Israel relationship. It began with the two countries opening up formal diplomatic ties in 1992. Following this, the relationship has been on a steady uptick. This period involved numerous exchanges between the leaders and ministers of the two countries. Trade relation also improved significantly as India opened up its economy after the reforms of 1991. Diplomatic relations flourished.

In May 1993, Shimon Peres, the foreign minister of Israel in office, visited India. He reiterated his country’s support for India and respected the Indian position in Kashmir. In December 1996, president Weizmann visited India with a business delegation. Soon after that, HD Deve Gowda, India’s reigning PM, met with Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of World Economic Forum summit. 

Defence relations between the two country also improved as Israel provided India with defence equipment and coming to India’s aid during the Kargil conflict. During the conflict, Israel provided the Indian army with ordinance, laser-guided bombs and UAVs. According to some reports, some Israeli officials were also present on-ground to help in intelligence gathering and training. All of this tilted the scales in India’s favour and also established Israel as one of India’s most reliable allies.

When India conducted the Pokhran-2 nuclear tests in 1998, many countries strongly opposed it, with US imposing economic sanctions on India; but Israel stood firmly by her side. There are reports which stated that Israel also provided India with technical assistance for the tests.

As is evident, the second phase was a significant improvement over the first one, but there were still some hiccups. India always hesitated to vote in favour of Israel in UN. The relationship took a setback when the UPA-alliance was in power at the Centre between 2004 and 2014, given their ideological concern for India’s Muslim population.

However, the friendship received a boost after the election of Narendra Modi as India’s prime  minister in 2014.

From 2014 till present

Narendra Modi became the first Indian PM to visit Israel in July 2017. This marked a new beginning for the friendship between the two countries. The visit was as important for Modi’s Israeli counterpart also, Benjamin Netanyahu. This was evident in the gesture by Netanyahu’s entire cabinet in welcoming Modi. This is usually an honour reserved for the US President and the Pope. This was also the first time that an Indian leader visited Israel without going to Ramallah, the Palestinian capital.

In January 2018, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu visited India. One thing which was different about this trip was that he decided to stay in India for six days. When the leader of a state visits another country, even if the country is an important ally, they do not schedule a trip for longer than four days. With Netanyahu staying in India for six days, the importance Israel attaches to its friendship with India was apparent for all to see. The fact that Narendra Modi accompanied Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife during their visit to various Indian monuments and historical places shows the bonhomie between the two leaders, which is indicative of the personal rapport built over the years.

These visits proved good for the two countries. As The Jerusalem Post reported, when Narendra Modi visited Israel, the two governments signed seven MoUs on various matters. And when Benjamin Netanyahu visited India, nine agreements touching upon different areas were signed.

Israel’s track record as a defence exporter to India has been reliable. Under Narendra Modi’s premiership, this defence relationship has been given a boost. India purchased three Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) from Israel for the Indian Air Force. These are a significant improvement over the ground-based radar, and are capable of detecting low-flying objects. Israel will also supply India with Barak-8 missiles, which are designed to protect against airborne threats in all-weather conditions, during day and night. India is also procuring 240 Spike Anti-Tank Guided Missiles and 12 launchers from Israel.

Beyond defence, Israel is also willing to share its knowledge on dealing with desertification and its techniques on desalination and water conservation. Under the Indo-Israeli Agriculture Project (IIAP), they will also share post-harvest technology with India and the two countries hope to jointly develop new crop varieties. 

One more development that has aided the Indo-Israel diplomatic relations in recent times was when India, for the first time, voted in favour of Israel at the UN.

On June 6, 2019, India voted in favour of Israel at the UN and struck down the resolution which was supposed to give a Palestinian NGO a consultative status at the UN. Israel’s official position is that this NGO is a terrorist organistaion. Despite decades of diplomatic ties, India had never supported Israel at the UN before. In contrast, even during Narendra Modi’s first term, India voted against Israel at the UN to change the Israeli capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Israel welcomed this step as a sign of the countries’ burgeoning friendship. It indicates that, this time, the Indian government means business; that their word of a better relationship with Israel is not hollow and that they are willing to follow-up on their promise of closer ties.

In the coming year, the ties between India and Israel in various spheres, such as political, economic, and military, are to watch out for.

Dhairya Nagpal is a writing analyst at Qrius

IndiaInternational relationsIsrael