India-Israel Friendship – Finally out of the closet?

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India and Israel became independent nation-states within months of each other. Yet, they find themselves at different ends of the spectrum. While Israel has become a global leader in defence equipment, India has focused more on the services sector, which has made it one of the fastest growing economies in the world. While these differences exist, both India and Israel face similar issues of turbulent borders marred by militancy and terrorism. Despite this common problem, the relationship between between the two countries has been normal at best, and non-existent at worst. This policy brief shall examine the history of the relationship, the implications of Modi’s visit to Israel earlier this month, and the potential for a blooming friendship in the future.

A Brief History

Although Israel became an independent state in 1948, India only established full diplomatic relations with it in 1992. In spite this delay on India’s part, the relationship between the two countries has blossomed. Trade between the two countries reached to an approximate $6 billion an year in 2013, before stagnating to around $4 billion last year. India is Israel’s second-largest trading partner in Asia, second only to China. Trade and cooperation between the countries now revolves primarily around security-related deals and aid in areas such as agriculture through the establishment of 26 centres of excellence across India through Israeli help. Negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement also began in 2010, though they have been inconclusive so far.

The key to the increasingly improving ties between India and Israel has, however, been the defence sector. After the nuclear tests of May 1998, India was also sanctioned by a military embargo. Unlike the United States and most Western countries, Israel did not condemn the test and resumed its defense exports to India. This increased Israel’s credibility as reliable arms supplier. Defence deals between the two countries have grown exponentially since then, and India has become one of the largest buyers of Israeli military hardware with annual defense deals worth over $1 billion. An important milestone in the cooperation between the two countries was reached in 2014 with the successful test of Barak 8, a jointly developed Indian-Israeli air and naval defense missile system. Modi’s election in 2014 further increased the partnership between the two countries, with the first six months of tenure of India’s new Prime Minister witnessing import of Israeli weapons and defence items worth $662 million to India.

Major Issues

The major issue of concern in the India-Israel bilateral ties is India’s contentious stance on Palestine. Successive Indian governments have been reluctant to openly embrace Israel as a friend. Instead, India has initiated and supported anti-Israel resolution in the UN, voting only once in favour of Israel out of the 266 resolutions in relation to Israel placed in front of the world body between 1992 and 2012. India has also publicly condemned Israel’s action in the West Bank and Gaza strip, choosing instead to support to Palestinian cause as part of the Non-Aligned Movement. Even though Israel gave India military support in its wars since 1962, India only saw Israel as a foe, a colonial and religiously nationalist nation.

The Present: Modi in Israel 2017

Earlier this month, PM Narendra Modi visited Israel, thus becoming the first Indian PM in history to visit the Jewish nation-state. Amidst the soft power push marked by visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum, a cultural programme and a congregation of the Indian diaspora, PM Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu discussed various issues like terror and cooperation in defence and security. At the end of the two-day visit, seven pacts had been inked between the two nations, covering a diverse range of areas like water conservation, agriculture and space. India and Israel also agreed to set up a $40 million fund for industrial Research and Development, and innovation fund, with both countries contributing $20 million each.

A joint statement issued after the talks emphasised that strong measures should be taken against terrorists, terror organisations, their networks and all those who encourage, support and finance terrorism, or provide sanctity to terrorists and terror groups. This was seen by India as a reference to Pakistan. Indian foreign secretary, speaking after the visit, also revealed how Israel showed its intention to make in India, and with India.

The Future

Israel has gained valuable expertise in military, defence and strategic affairs. Further, Israel is making great inroads in the technology sector, and can help India in its quest to digitise the world. Israel also provides India with a true friend against Islamic terrorism. Israel, on the other hand, would look to invest in India’s fast growing economy. Isrel and India also share complex geographies and are aware of strategic threats to regional peace and stability. Hence, Israel sees, in India, a partner in its battle against radical Islamic terrorism on its borders. In addition, Israel’s nationalist and religious PM Benjamin Netanyahu finds, for the first time, a like-minded counterpart in India’s PM Modi, and the duo can pave the way for a mutually beneficial alliance.

However, this friendship comes at the cost of commitment from India to alter its position on Israel, which has been ambiguous. India needs to take a stand on Palestine, without fearing the backlash it might bring from Muslims in India. India also needs to understand that despite its unhindering support for Palestine for decades, it still has not been able to garner the support of the Arab world. Hence, a shift of stance might reap benefits. Modi, by not visiting Palestine during his recent visit to Israel, has already indicated that India is ready to move on from its love for the Arab world. With the right attitude and efforts, India and Israel can stitch up a bilateral relationship that can decide the global order in the future.