India and Israel are two democracies that share a history that is marred by British colonial rule, they were carved independent only a few months apart, and have hostile neighbours. However, despite the number of commonalities shared between these countries, since 1948 India has observed Israel through a narrow lens. This was due to a number of factors: Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were more sympathetic towards the Arabs; India’s foreign policy was influenced by the Cold War alignments, while at the same time, newborn India did not want to alienate its considerably large Muslim minority.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel have changed things around; it has made them more interesting and palpably real. It marks a transition in India’s history, where India has finally gone all out in announcing its critically important relationship with the Israeli nation – which have for decades otherwise been covert, behind-closed-doors bilateral interactions, anchored in military and intelligence discussions.
The Birth of a Nation
For almost four decades, India had ambiguous diplomatic liaisons with Israel. When Israel proclaimed itself as an independent nation in 1948, it immediately sought international recognition. But Nehru, the then Prime Minister of a newly-carved out country, was hesitant. He was reluctant in granting Israel the recognition it desired.
Nehru believed in the Arab cause and believed that it was essential to have a unified, secular nation which would be inhabited, harmoniously by Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish. In addition, Nehru wanted to safeguard the sentiments of his Muslim citizens (and other Arab nations), who were instinctively pro-Palestinian. India, therefore, voted against the United Nations Partition plan. However, it lost by a majority vote (two-thirds; 33 in favour and 13 against) that approved the establishment of Israel and Palestinian as two separate, independent countries. Thus, Israel was born on May 14, 1948.
Nehru first met the future first President of Israel, Haim Weizmann, in July 1938 (nine years before India’s independence and 10 years prior to Israel’s). At that time, Nehru believed that the conflict between Arabs and Jews, was not a religious one, but an “Arab national struggle for independence against British treachery,” wrote Joseph Hadass in Indo-Israeli Relations (published in India International Center Quarterly, 2002). During the meeting, Weizmann told Nehru, “If you, Nehru, think that we are wrong morally, there can be no dialogue between us. But if you are welling to accept that there is a moral basis for our national aspirations, then we can elaborate and go into details.”
A decade later, on May 17, 1948, Monsieur Moshe Shertok [later Sharett], Foreign Minister of the Provisional Government of the State of Israel, penned a letter to Nehru, requesting India to acknowledge Israel. In his fortnightly letter, dated May 20, 1948, Nehru acknowledged that he had received such a letter. But Nehru, while addressing Chief Ministers wrote in May 1948, “We propose to take no action in this matter [i.e. recognition] at present. India can play no effective part in this conflict at the present stage either diplomatically or otherwise. We can only watch events for the time being, hoping that an opportunity may come when we might use our influence in the interest of peace and meditation.” Hostile against the Jewish state, when Israel was vouching for its admission into the United Nations in May 1949, India voted against it. However, that too, was a failed attempt. Israel was granted membership into the UN.
It took India 28 months (from May 1948 to September 1950) to acquiesce and finally recognize Israel as a nation – two years after Israel was established and after 60 countries had recognized it. While doing so Nehru said, “We would have [recognised Israel] long ago, because Israel is a fact. We refrained because of our desire not to offend the sentiments of our friends in the Arab countries.” Following this, India allowed the establishment of an “immigration office” in Mumbai, which eventually became the consulate.
In contrast, India was the first non-Arab state to recognise the “State of Palestine” in 1988, while in 2012 it called for Palestinian statehood to be recognised by the United Nations.
Interestingly, however, since then India — while refusing to publicly acknowledge its relationship with Israel — has continued to covertly receive assistance from the country. Although Israel had come to India’s aid during its war with China in 1962 by providing India with strategic advice and powerful arms, the two countries’ diplomatic relations only cemented in the 1990s.
The Fall of the Soviet Empire
In the post-Cold War era, which saw the dramatic downfall of the Soviet Union, India could no longer depend on the country as its defense patron. The Indians had to now look for an alternative alliance, and Israel’s sophisticated arms and military caliber impressed them. Soviet Union’s collapse led to a collapse of the ideological stance India had on Israel. India now had to have a pragmatic approach towards the country, keeping its military expertise in mind. When the Madrid Peace Process was launched in 1991, India announced its full recognition of the country. It was former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao who boldly pushed the envelope and encouraged bilateral exchanges. Since then, the relationship between the two nations have become better, but did not meet their fullest potential.
While the seeds of amicability were first sowed by the left-leaning Congress Party, India’s stance on Israel – with its conspicuous pro-Palestine credentials – has been somewhat of a diplomatic see-saw. Interestingly, India’s relationship with Israel has always thrived under the reign of the ideologically-right BJP, where Israel has been considered a strong and highly significant supplier of defense arms. In 2004, when Congress regained its control over the government, India returned to being clandestine about its strategic cooperation with Israel; it brushed its ties with Israel firmly away from public view and underneath the carpet.
The year 1999,however, was the age of diplomatic renaissance between the two countries. The historic and catastrophic Kargil War proved to be a turning point. Israel proved to be an important ally and defense instrument of support, providing India with ammunition when Pakistan infiltratied the Kargil-Dras region located in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. India’s alarming realisation of its military incompetence (which led to Pakistan’s intrusion in the first place), was a wake up call for the country to strengthen its border-control and counter-terrorism abilities. In this context, the then BJP-led government chose to strengthen its ties with technologically advanced Israel. With Israel on its side, India was able to flip the situation during the Kargil war. Israel stepped up and provided the necessary weaponry for military warfare, along with laser-guided missiles for India’s fighter jets.
Israel’s aid was god-sent, an event that India would go on to remember for decades to come. In his visit in 2015 to Israel, President Pranab Mukherjee had acknowledged and appreciated Israel’s support during the war and thanked it for providing “critical defense supplies”.
Cut to 2017
Today, the Indian government, once again driven by the BJP, helmed by Modi, is visibly vocal and serious about prioritising its partnership with Israel. Modi, known for his sharp business acumen, is determined more than ever, to boost the country’s military expertise and build a sophisticated, world-class military force. In his mind, strong ties with Israel therefore, will not only promise an excellent patron for technologically advanced arms and surveillance equipment; but Israel’s willingness to share technical know-how (more than the other suppliers) will help mold the strong defense apparatus Modi has been dreaming of. In the light of this, Israel has emerged as the third most important arms-exporter after US and Russia, and is said to be supplying arms worth about $1 billion a year to India.
At the same time, however, India continues to have a soft-spot for Palestine. Certain newspapers in Israel noted during Modi’s visit that while the Prime Minister’s “focus” was on establishing stronger Indo-Israeli ties, President Mukherjee in the past had been vocal about the country’s pro-Palestinian leanings. On his brief three-day visit to Palestine in October 2015, Mukherjee had stated, “India’s solidarity with the Palestinian people and its principled support to the Palestinian cause is rooted in our own freedom struggle.” He added that India had “always been at the forefront in promoting the Palestinian cause.”
Modi, however, has his eyes on the prize. In April, India signed a $2 billion missile defence deal with Israel for purchasing sophisticated medium-range surface-to-air missile systems (MRSAM). Last year, India signed two important deals with Israel’s Aerospace Industries, which manufactures defense systems.