India’s relations with Israel have grown from trade to co-development of defence equipment
In the run up to Israeli snap elections, as parties began campaigning, then Prime Minister of the country, Benjamin Netanyahu, at his party headquarters in Tel Aviv displayed separate, life-size posters of his pictures with world leaders including the then US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ahead of the national elections that year, Netanyahu in fact even planned to visit India. However, the visit was called off.
Flashback 2018, Modi, and Netanyahu, in a show of friendship, embarked on an 8 km-long road show from the airport to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Around 50 stages had been erected on the roadside along the stretch to showcase performances by troupes of different states to welcome the guests. While political observers, on a lighter note, termed every Modi-Netanyahu picture as ‘bromance’, it signified a huge policy change on India’s part in its engagement with the middle eastern country. Especially because the previous governments had limited the closeness between the two countries to matters related to defence technology. Modi, who visited Israel in 2017, became the first Indian prime minister to do so.
India’s external affairs minister, Dr S. Jaishankar was in Israel for ‘high-level talks’ in October 2021. This was Jaishankar’s first visit after assuming the ministerial position. The visit, just as the ones undertaken by government officials, including Prime Minister Modi, are a marker of the growing India-Israel ties. Even as the two countries share decades-old bilateral ties, the association currently being undertaken looks of a more comprehensive nature.
At a meeting with the CEOs of Israeli companies and government officials, the Times of Israel reported that Jaishankar went on to say that India regarded Israel “in many ways as perhaps our most trusted and innovative partner.” He said that the degree of trust between the two countries was very high. Ron Malka, the economy ministry director-general, and a former ambassador to India, added that Israel’s ties with India are “the biggest achievement we have done with any country in international affairs.” He called the relationship “a key strategic partnership.” Towards the end of his visit, Jaishankar had discussed a ‘wide range’ of regional and global issues and agreed to resume Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations from November. The two countries aim at concluding these by mid-2022. They also agreed on mutual recognition of vaccination certificates and expanded cooperation in water and agriculture. He welcomed Israel to be a member of the International Solar Alliance initiated by India. Jaishankar’s Israel visit mainly aimed at forging ties with the new Bennett-Lapid government that took over in June this year. Israel and India helped one another during the COVID-19 pandemic. On this Lapid said, “That is how friends and partners act.” Apart from business community leaders, he held talks with leading academics in Israel and interacted with the Indian Jewish community.
India and Israel elevated their ties to strategic partnership in 2017, exactly 25 years after they formed diplomatic ties. Cooperation between both the countries was limited to defence technology. For India, Israel is one of the leading arms exporters. Doctoral Candidate, Centre for West Asian/ Middle Eastern Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia (University), Afroz Khan says, “India-Israel relations were initially based on strategic and defence-related cooperation. Other than defence, the diamond industry was another important source of bilateral trade between the two countries. But this has changed significantly in the recent decade. There is a growing consensus among a large section of Indians that Israel is essential for India’s security. The current Indian government has extensively invested in diversifying the bilateral engagement between the two countries. Cultural and academic exchange programme has increased significantly. Israel has initiated various programmes to encourage Indian investment in the country including “Bollywood Shalom” to invite Indian film producers to invest in Israel.”
India first recognised Israel as a country in September, 1950. Initially, the Jewish Agency established an immigration office in Mumbai. This was later converted into a Trade Office and subsequently into a Consulate. Both the countries finally established embassies in 1992. Between 1950 and 1992, Israel tried to establish full blown relations. However, subsequent Indian governments were wary of the closeness, as India has always been on Palestine’s side at an international level. India’s proximity with Israel had been subject to internal politics. Earlier governments had been wary of being too close to Israel in order not to antagonise the Muslim population within country. The same applies even today.
India and Israel have mainly focused their ties on matters related to security. In 1962 and 1965 wars with its neighbours, and faced tremendous arms shortage, India got weapons from Israel. In 1971 too the story repeated. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir for weapons. Israel in turn provided arms by directing the Iranian order to India. All this while, Israel did try forge full diplomatic ties with India, but India resisted. In 1983, Israel extended help to India to aerially strike Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme by bombing the Kahuta reactor. India finally agreed in 1984, but the mission was aborted after Pakistan was warned by the US and in turn threatened to bomb Trombay reactor.
In 1991, when India needed avionics for the MiG-21 fleet, India approached Israel., Even as Russia raised eyebrows, India went the Israeli way. A lot of India’s Russian weapon systems including airplanes and missiles are equipped with Israeli radars and electronic systems. The Arab-Israeli peace process after the 1991 Gulf War, the objections raised by Israel’s regional enemies to ties of third parties with the country were almost brought to a standstill. Almost all Arab countries sent senior diplomatic delegations to the October 1991 peace conference in Madrid. India shunned its reluctance and gradually sought to upgrade relations with Israel. Israel however wanted the relations to develop in full form and urged India to do away with its one-step-at-a-time policy.
Finally in 1992, Prime Minister P.V Narasimha Rao established full diplomatic ties. This step too mainly arose from the need for India to get arms. The US had imposed sanctions on India, and the Soviet Union was biting the dust and Russia was only gathering itself up. For the country to have a third alternative, Israel only seemed like a natural option.
Israel and India even cooperated on their nuclear strategies. Reports suggest that in 1996, the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres called on the then Indian ambassador to outline the nuclear doctrine of Israel. The year turned out to be crucial for the relations between the two countries.
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