When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Tel Aviv on 4 July, he not only became the first Indian PM to visit Israel, he also marked the 25th anniversary of full bilateral ties between the two countries.
India and Israel share a common history in that both were born in blood due largely to European missteps and colonialism. However, the trajectories the two countries followed since their birth have been dissimilar.
While Israel became the world’s only Jewish state and a high militarised nation owing to hostile neighbours, India battled uncertainty and scepticism to sustain the world’s largest democracy while achieving steady economic growth. While Israel followed a markedly pro-Western foreign policy and embraced free market economics, India was a founder of the Non-Alignment Movement and belatedly liberalised its economy.
When we talk of India-Israel relations, three Indians stand out for influencing the ties most strongly: Jawaharlal Nehru, Narasimha Rao and Narendra Modi, each of them Prime Ministers and each of whom approached Israel in their own unique manners while maintaining a balance with Palestine and the Arab world at large.
While Nehru pursued a cautious diplomacy with Israel, Rao established complete bilateral ties. The Modi era saw a tilt away from Palestine, with the Prime Minister becoming the highest-ranking Indian to visit Israel in history.
The two countries have not always been at the best of terms. It took India two years to recognise Israel, which it finally did in 1950. A consulate would be established in Mumbai in 1953.
But New Delhi was hesitant to pursue full diplomatic ties. The Indian government was supportive of the Palestinian cause – and still remains so. This suspicion of Israeli intentions stemmed from the Indian National Congress’s view of Israel as a neocolonial and religious state and concern for the Indian population in Arab countries and New Delhi’s energy dependence on the Middle-east. Other reasons include the Indian Muslim community’s animosity towards Israel and India’s desire to control Pakistan’s influence in the Arab world.
So since 1950, India has pursued a delicate balancing act between championing the aspirations of the Palestinian people while maintaining crucial ties with Israel.
Decades of a tentative relationship became open in 1992. The end of the Cold War, Pakistan’s maneuvering in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and common strategic and security interests caused this significant shift.
In 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India, paving the way for further solidification of ties.
Relations received a major boost following the victory of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2014 Indian general election. Narendra Modi pursued an openly pro-Israel foreign policy. When the UN Human Rights Council voted on a resolution condemning Israel for its 2014 military offensive in Gaza, India chose to abstain.
What was a primarily an informal and a defence partnership became more extensive and diversified. In 2015, talks began to establish a free trade agreement between the two countries focusing on areas such as information technology, biotechnology, and agriculture.
But India retained its support for Palestine at the same time. Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj insisted that “there is absolutely no change in India’s policy towards Palestine, which is that we fully support the Palestinian cause while maintaining good relations with Israel.”
Modi became the first Indian PM to visit Israel in July 2017. His three-day trip did not involve a visit to Palestinian territories: when previous Indian Presidents and foreign ministers visited Israel, they also visited Palestine.
A delicate balance? Not really
Almost 75% of oil to India comes from the Arab states, which are also a major source of remittances and expatriate jobs. India has nothing to gain from pursuing a hostile relationship. But India also has a lot to gain from closer ties with Israel, who is its third biggest source for arms and ammunition behind Russia and the United States.
One might assume that a balancing act between Israel and Palestine would be difficult to maintain for India. But New Delhi has a long history of non-alignment and balance. India is not politically engaged in the Middle-east’s conflicts and, historically, Indian foreign policy has been neutral at best. Only last year, Prime Minister Modi visited both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and India had enjoyed pragmatic relationships with the US and Russia even during most of the Cold War.
Similar to China, India has no economic incentive in engaging in the region’s numerous problems.
During PM Modi’s historic visit, India signed seven agreements in various areas including space and agriculture. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the visit 70 years in the making, gave Modi a red carpet welcome at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, an honour bestowed previously to dignitaries like the US President and the Pope.
A first-of-its-kind pro-Israel tilt is underway in the politics of the world’s second-most populous economy. How this will affect the country’s interests in the Arab world remains to be seen. But if history and India’s talents at neutrality are any indication, close ties with Tel Aviv will not grossly hamper India’s other interests in the Middle-east.