After three days packed with high-level public meetings and events in New Delhi, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is travelling with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Gujarat and Maharashtra. The official visit acknowledges the historical ties between the Jewish community and these Indian states since an important wave of Baghdadi Jews moved during the 18th century from present day Iraq to Surat and Bombay (Mumbai).
In both coastal regions, Baghdadi Jews contributed significantly to the development of the manufacturing and commercial sectors, especially the promotion of trade ties with West Asia. More recently, both Indian states were pioneers in the promotion of trade and cooperation with the newly established state of Israel in the 1950s and 1960s by considering the help of Israeli technical experts for the development of agriculture, irrigation and water supply projects.
However, their lobbying efforts could not materialise given the absence of official diplomatic relations between both countries at the time. Finally, many forget how Bombay played a key role in maintaining a limited channel of communication between India and Israel from 1953 to 1992, as Israel was able to open a Consulate in Bombay in spite of the absence of official diplomatic ties.
The visit by Netanyahu to the two regional capitals is a necessary recognition of the central role played by Indian states in building up this bilateral relationship. While most observers in India and Israel have highlighted the importance of the return of the BJP to power in 2014 or the personal chemistry between Netanyahu and Modi as elevating the bilateral ties to new heights, the real agents driving the diversification and consolidation of the India-Israel partnership have been India’s regional governments.
Over the last 25 years, it had become commonplace for commentators to make use of the unflattering metaphor, a “closeted affair”, to qualify India-Israel ties. However, the use of this unfortunate moniker seems somewhat misplaced given how the bilateral relationship has been reinforced and stabilized through regular visits of Indian chief ministers to Israel to seek expertise and cooperation in various domains.
Since New Delhi established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, regional governments in Ahmedabad and Mumbai have also been at the forefront of cooperation in the agricultural and water management domains with Israel. Even though the two countries had normalized ties, Union governments were still hesitant to publicly embrace cooperation with Israel. As a result, state governments, free from the political, ideological and institutional constraints inhibiting New Delhi leadership, started directly discussing with the Israeli government and Israeli firms.
Several joint ventures, agricultural projects, and MoUs were signed with Indian state governments, including Gujarat and Maharashtra. For instance, active participation from chief ministers and regional delegations to agricultural exhibitions in Israel enhanced the awareness regarding cooperation opportunities and promoted contacts between India and Israeli entrepreneurs, resulting in concrete collaboration in the field of agriculture. These direct contacts open the path to the setup of Israeli demonstration farms in Maharashtra, Gujarat and other states to validate the potential of drip irrigation, seed production, and other skills in India.
A prominent example of the key role played by regional governments is the visit by Sharad Pawar to Tel Aviv in May 1993 as chief minister of Maharashtra, just a few days after stepping down from his position of defence minister in the P V Narasimha Rao government. Pawar led the first important Indian delegation to an agricultural exhibition in Israel. Emulating this successful precedent, Gujarat Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel also travelled to Israel and met personally with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to discuss and sign seven MOUs. Following the footsteps of Patel, Modi also visited Israel as Gujarat’s Chief Minister and actively encouraged cooperation at the state-level with Israeli agriculture, pharmaceutical, alternative energy, and information technology companies.
Israel has also cultivated these interactions with subnational political entities in India. At the more local and focused scale, Israeli firms have been able to advance and deliver services and projects in agriculture and water management at a faster pace. This engagement of regional actors has also gradually made regional governments direct stakeholders in the partnership that has emerged between India and Israel.
For instance, H D Deve Gowda, who had previously visited Israel as the chief minister of the state of Karnataka in 1995 to look for technological assistance in the agricultural and horticultural sectors, did not revise the Indian rationale for engaging Israel when he became Prime Minister in 1996.
As Netanyahu and Modi directly witness the results of these long-term and technical ties when visiting a centre of excellence for vegetables and inaugurating a research facility for cultivation of dates in Gujarat, they should also acknowledge the practical needs and expectations of the regional actors which have advocated for and shaped this partnership in the first place.
The public elevation of the bilateral relationship that has happened over the last four years has been useful to further normalize India-Israel ties, which were long affected by the fluctuations of political events in the West Asian region, but can also raise varying expectations in India and Israel about a level of partnership that may not be achievable.
The recent Indian vote at the United Nations General Assembly for a resolution calling on the United States to withdraw its decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital shows that New Delhi will continue to balance between different actors and interests and refuse any drastic realignment when it comes to its voting strategy in multilateral fora.
The often-overlooked subnational dimension also complements the strategic-military driver of this relationship. Beyond the narratives of ideological convergence, shared worldviews or personal leader chemistry, the India-Israel partnership has emerged and stabilised over the last 25 years because of its uniquely depoliticized, decentralized and technical nature.