India and Israel: A meeting of minds
Right from the 1990s, when India and Israel established full diplomatic relations, till today, commonalities between the two nations have helped develop a relationship that is more than just transactional
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return visit to India in response to Indian Premier Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in July 2017 has cemented the relationship between the two countries to such an extent that it has sent shivers across the borders on both flanks. India and Israel, though geographically distant, are closest strategically. Both attained independence from the British almost at the same time and Israel’s creation at that time was viewed by many idealists in India as based on religion, like the partition of the sub-continent. But the realists opposed this and felt that Israel is much more than just another nation and considered it an anti-thesis to pan-Islamic ideology that was gaining ground in the early 20th century. During the Cold War era, the two nations chartered different courses. While Israel embraced the United States and closer ties with west European nations, India under Jawaharlal Nehru championed the Non-Aligned Movement and veered closer towards the Soviet Union. India’s dependence on the Arab World to meet its hydrocarbon needs and its large Muslim population was another major obstacle to building a relationship with Israel as India feared that close relations with the Jewish state might radicalise its Muslim citizens — numbering more than 100 million — and hurt its relations with the Arab world.
India formally recognised Israel in 1950 but relations between the countries remained informal for most of the period till the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. India and Israel established formal diplomatic ties only in 1992. It was the BJP convention in October 1991 that had called for establishing full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. The BJP has always admired Israel for its pride in nationalism and respect for the military. Netanyahu’s visit here will also mark the culmination of year-long celebrations that commenced in January last year to celebrate 25 years of establishment of formal diplomatic relations. During the intervening period though we did not enjoy formal relations, Israel was always there to help India in the hours of national crisis starting from the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and both the wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. Israel’s contribution during the Kargil War, despite international pressure sowed the seeds of trust between the two nations and Israel emerged as an all-weather friend of India. This trust later transformed into a long lasting bond. Since then, both countries have benefitted immensely and India has become the largest trading partner of Israel. The emergence of terrorism as a threat and Pakistan-sponsored proxy war brought the two nations even closer but domestic vote-bank politics prevented the UPA I and II to openly embrace Israel. India-Israel cooperation increased dramatically in 2014 since the Modi-led NDA Government came to power in New Delhi. Despite sharing 25 years of diplomatic ties and working closely on defence, counter terrorism, agriculture and high-end technology, no Indian Prime Minister had visited Israel. The trend was broken by Modi, whose maiden visit in July 2017 chartered a new course in Indo-Israeli ties, making them inseparable friends.
The commonalities between the two nations, namely hostile neighbours, cross-border terrorism and targets of global Islamic terror dictate the “convergence of congruent interests”, leading to deepening of mutual relations that will bring dividends to both nations. Former Israeli Ambassador to India, Alon Ushpiz, while remitting office, summed up the relationship with India as one in which “two intimate partners who trust each other start thinking of challenges together and solutions together and what follows together.”
Relations between the two are governed more by pragmatism than by ideology, each side understands each other’s needs and compulsions. India does not want to distant itself from the Palestinian cause and Israel does not allow the bilateral relationship to be imperilled by India’s condemnation of Israeli actions in Gaza or West Coast. Realpolitik determines that India has been poorly compensated for supporting Palestine. The Arab world has failed to reign in Pakistan from fomenting trouble in Kashmir and sponsoring cross-border terrorism in India. India, however, desires to maintain good relationship with Muslim countries despite Pakistan blocking India’s entry into the Organisation of Islamic Countries. India today enjoys friendly relations with the Gulf countries, Iran as well as Saudi Arabia and yet continues to foster better and stronger relations with Israel.
Radical Islamic terrorism is the most potent common threat faced by the two nations and has accelerated the rapid pace of growing bonhomie between the two nations.
Not many would know that during the Kargil War, Israel helped India to build strategy against intruders. It speeded up the shipment of ordered arms, delivered UAVs and shared photographs from its military satellites. India’s war against terror has guided new affinities and forged different strategic relationships as compared to anti-colonial rhetoric of Nehru era. Under Modi’s leadership, as the country marches towards a terror-free New India by 2022, she has embarked on the path of fostering everlasting friendship with Israel.
Israel’s contribution in enhancing our border security is also significant and noteworthy. The Indian military deployed an Israeli-developed comprehensive integrated border management system along its border with Pakistan in August 2017. The fence will be monitored by sensors and security cameras, and will alert people in monitoring facilities when a breach has occurred. India plans to seal all of its 6,300-km borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh with the Israeli smart-fence. Israel has sold India motion detectors and other monitoring and surveillance equipment to counter Pakistan-supported infiltration as well as tunnel-detecting equipment. Israeli-built UAVs for high altitude surveillance have proved as force multipliers. Israel today is the second largest arm exporter to India next to Russia.
Indo-Israeli friendship is not confined to defence or border security only but also extends to other domains like agriculture, water utilisation solutions, drought farming, solar energy, space and technology and cyber security. India is Israel’s 10th largest trade partner and import source and seventh largest export source. Lot of Israelis visit India as tourists and Israel is also becoming a fast-growing popular tourist destination among Indians. Israeli entrepreneurs have shown active interest in many of India’s flagship programmes like ‘Make in India’ in defence sector and proposed investment in joint production of defence weaponry, river cleaning and sewage as part of ‘Swachh Bharat.’
During his first meeting on September 28, 2014, at New York with Netanyahu, Modi acknowledged that Israel and India have a historic working relationship and stated that India is “the only country where anti-semitism has never been allowed to come up, where Jews have never suffered and lived as an integral part of our society”. Netanyahu invited Modi to Israel for a visit where he received Modi with exceptional warmth and stated “sky is the limit” as far as Indo-Israeli cooperation is concerned.
Modi reciprocated with an unprecedented welcome to Netanyahu during his ongoing maiden visit to India. Apart from signing nine Memorandums of Understanding at the Government level, Netanyahu has been interacting with Indian businessmen for joint ventures and investments. He has a reason to smile on a very successful visit so far. “Indo-Israeli partnership has reached unprecedented heights; this is the beginning of a wonderful friendship and possibilities are boundless. India and Israel are democracies, share a love for freedom; we are a match made in heaven,” Netanyahu said while addressing a business summit in Mumbai. “We are trying to develop Israel with changing times and for that we wish to collaborate with our old friend India,” wished Netanyahu. India can boast of its friendship with Israel as inseparable and without any barriers.
(The writer, a BJP State spokesperson, is a Jammu-based strategic and security analyst)
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