Importance of the India-Israel relationship
Many observers have qualified Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel as historic, with the potential to elevate the bilateral relationship to ‘new heights’. However, not one of these accounts has properly defined what these ‘new heights’ will actually look like. The visit is symbolically overdue, as Modi was the first Indian prime minister to travel to Israel 25 years after the two countries established diplomatic relations, and 14 years after Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to New Delhi.
One could also argue that the efforts towards diversification of ties beyond defence exchanges and improve bilateral trade figures (which have plateaued since 2013) would be welcome developments in the maturing of this bilateral relationship. However, Indian and Israeli press coverage seems to have raised expectations. Should we then expect a departure from the present transactional relationship?
It is a particularly difficult exercise to evaluate the state of India-Israel ties given the unique historical nature and evolution of this relationship. From Nehru to Modi, India has cautiously balanced its policy towards various actors and coalitions in West Asia, at the expense of normalising its ties with Israel. Since 1992 however, both the Congress party and the BJP have developed significant defence and trade relations with Israel while also maintaining a strong commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state. Given this historical legacy, it is not clear whether the current Modi government itself has a clear idea of where it wants to take this relationship.
As chief minister, Modi had regularly expressed his admiration of Israel’s military, agricultural and technological achievements, notably during a visit to Tel Aviv in 2006. For decades, the BJP also promoted a political rapprochement with Israel. In a first symbolic move, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government welcomed Sharon to New Delhi in 2003. However, the path to Tel Aviv since Modi became prime minister in May 2014 has proven to be more arduous than anticipated. In light of Modi’s personal and ideological predispositions, one would have expected a more radical tilt towards Israel.
Initially, Modi showed an interest in upgrading the relationship by regularly meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, prematurely announcing his visit to Israel in June 2015, and encouraging a gradual revision of India’s consistent support for Palestine in multilateral organisations. However, after originally signaling this pro-Israel shift, Modi embarked on a course correction by mid2015 and effectively resumed the policy of multi-engagement of all relevant West Asian actors. Before traveling to Israel, Modi had visited the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran. In anticipation of the Israel visit, Modi also hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in May 2017 and reasserted India’s traditional support for an independent Palestinian nation “at peace with Israel”. These various developments show that the Modi government’s policy towards West Asia has yet to be coherently formulated.
As a result, can we expect any substantial shift in India’s position? The current transactional partnership which has emerged over the last decade holds at least four advantages. First of all, it benefits both India
and Israel, especially in the defence sector. India is Israel’s biggest arms market, with an average of $1 billion of defence sales per year. Israel has become one of India’s most important weapons suppliers, after Russia and the US.
Second, unlike in the recent past, trade and defence ties have developed in isolation from the fluctuation of political events, whether these were regional crises (for instance, in Gaza) or domestic political transitions (across the Congress and BJP). Third, present ties have attracted limited uproar from regional Arab allies. Finally, the current nature of the partnership means that chief ministers and their state governments can directly seek collaborations and investments in agricultural and water technologies from Israel.
Nevertheless, there is a sentiment within some Indian elites, and certainly in the BJP, that Israel has regularly supported New Delhi in times of duress, notably by providing military and political support during the Kargil conflict. As a consequence, this visit comes as a timely public acknowledgment of this partnership. The visit also coincides with waning support for Israel in the US and Western Europe.
Furthermore, the standalone visit from Modi, breaking with the traditional pattern of jointly traveling to Tel Aviv and Ramallah, has also been broadcast as a deliberate effort at de-hyphenating relations with Israel and Palestine. Recently, Modi also compared the post-Uri surgical strikes to covert Israeli operations, possibility indicating ways in which the Indian military could emulate Israeli forces in counterterrorism strategies.
These public gestures should however not be interpreted as indicators that Modi will promote any type of political and strategic alliance, but rather as a public commitment to a partnership he personally values. In spite of Modi’s admiration for Israel’s achievements in the fields of internal security and counter-terrorism, the structural differences between Indian and Israeli national security situations, world views (notably on Iran), and the absence of explicitly shared enemies (beyond an abstract notion of global terrorism) limit any stronger strategic rapprochement.
There has for instance not been any attempt by the current government to revive the idea formulated by the BJP’s National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra in 2003 of forming an alliance to fight the common threat of terrorism.
As a result, while observers have generally hinted at personal willingness from Modi to change India’s traditional approach to the region, notably by decisively tilting towards Israel, it seems that both regional pressures and opportunities have compelled Modi to recalibrate back to a more neutral approach. That being said, given the unique nature of this bilateral relationship and of the visit, a paradigmatic shift remains a possibility.