Why are India-Israel ties so special?

Despite Modi’s admiration for Israel’s achievements, the structural differences between Indian and Israeli national security situations, their worldviews and the absence of explicitly shared enemies limit stronger strategic rapprochement

Written by Nicolas Blarel | Published:July 3, 2017 7:30 am
Narendra Modi, Israel Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Express photo by Renuka Puri.

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 will be 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 normalizing its ties with Israel. Since 1992 however, both the Congress party and the BJP have developed significant defense 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 organizations. However, after originally signaling this pro-Israel shift, Modi embarked on a course correction by mid-2015 and effectively resumed the policy of multi-engagement of all relevant West Asian actors. Before traveling to Israel, Modi has 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 this coming week? 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 defense sector. India is Israel’s biggest arms market, with an average of $1 billion of defense 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 counter-terrorism 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, worldviews (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 imminent visit, a paradigmatic shift remains a possibility.

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  1. R
    Rauf
    Jul 8, 2017 at 6:37 pm
    We never never consider you G S Tea Wala to be our PM of India just shut your mouth useless Modi
    Reply
    1. R
      Raju
      Jul 8, 2017 at 4:57 pm
      Conflict in Israel has been a reality whenever Israel has existed as a nation. Whether it was the Egyptians, Amalekites, Midianites, Moabites, Ammonites, Amorites, Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, or Romans, the nation of Israel has always been cuted by its neighbors. Why is this? According to the Bible, it is because God has a special plan for the nation of Israel, and Satan wants to defeat that plan. Satanically influenced hatred of Israel—and especially Israel’s God—is the reason Israel’s neighbors have always wanted to see Israel destroyed. Whether it is Sennacherib, king of Assyria Haman, official of Persia Hitler, leader of Germany or Muslims, attempts to completely destroy Israel will always fail. The cutors of Israel will come and go, but the cution will remain until the second coming of Christ. As a result, conflict in Israel is not a reliable indicator of the soon arrival of the end times.However, the Bible does say there will be terrible
      Reply
      1. A
        Ananth
        Jul 7, 2017 at 11:54 am
        It is clear Modi's moves are made based on the need of the hour and of the Nation. If he can do that without upsetting the apple cart then one should give him kudos for his statesmanship. One thing which is clear is Palestine can no longer expect a emotional bondage with Delhi. The relations will be based on matter of fact and the correct course which India would like to follow at that time.
        Reply
        1. S
          Surinderdev
          Jul 6, 2017 at 11:32 am
          Modi is a game changer, he is the last hope of better India tomorrow, and to become a world leader. if he fails, India shall have to wait for long to become rely a country of peoples dreams. Since there is no figure on the political horizon who may realize peoples dreams of prosperous, vi berating and great India.
          Reply
          1. A
            Ag
            Jul 5, 2017 at 4:43 pm
            modi should not missed this opportunities to make this friendship more strong and unforgetabble he should share dungcake laddo and mutr ma chai so that the people remember for long long time plus it will prove that he is true son of cow and become good example for all chaddi bhakt
            Reply
            1. K
              Kamath
              Jul 4, 2017 at 3:44 am
              Long live good relationship between Isrkael and India. It will be a win-win relation!
              Reply
              1. S
                siddiqui
                Jul 3, 2017 at 11:35 pm
                But remember that things will always turn around and come back, do that much of injustice to the extent that you can bear the consequences of it.
                Reply
                1. H
                  Humanbeing
                  Jul 7, 2017 at 1:20 pm
                  this funda applies first and foremost to muslims.
                  Reply
                2. S
                  siddiqui
                  Jul 3, 2017 at 11:33 pm
                  india and israel friendship is important because of only one thing that they have one common enemy which they dream every day and night of destroying every moment of there life and that is islam and the muslims. there is no other reason except to cause harm and destruction of islam and muslims.
                  Reply
                  1. P
                    Paki Pig Finder
                    Jul 4, 2017 at 2:05 am
                    You are definitely a highly radicalized animal, thoroughly brainwashed by some Mullah from some Multani or Lahori madrassa. It is said, that those who use yellow goggles, see everything around them as yellow. For your information, Modi has close Muslim friends not just Indians, but from around the world. He was given the highest civilian award by the Saudi Arabian Government. Modi, appointed his friend Syed Akbaruddin as India's permanent representative at the United Nations since January 2016. Modi respects all religions. A large number of Muslims voted for Modi's BJP in various elections. There are Muslims working in his cabinet and also holding important positions in his party. So you better stop your jehadi propaganda, by doing which you are only showing your hatred against the so called 'infidels', which has been drilled in your ultra-small brain since your childhood.
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                    1. A
                      Ananth
                      Jul 7, 2017 at 11:58 am
                      The point is, is Islam willing to live in peace and amity with other religions or wishes to stick to its basic doctrine of converting everyone else to their religion.
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                      1. H
                        Humanbeing
                        Jul 7, 2017 at 1:21 pm
                        islam problem is only one of the reasons for the friendship. the others being technology transfer in other areas of life and not only for war mongering like how the arabs and non arab muslims do.
                        Reply
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