India and Israel have been allies for much of recent history although the relations between these two countries have been low-profile and only started getting global attention in recent years. Besides having strong economic ties the two countries also share key strategic and military cooperation.
Surprisingly India-Israel relations were largely informal until 1991. Despite having some ties since the 1960s mainly owing to defence and intelligence cooperation, India did not formalise diplomatic relations due to having a pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian stance. However this gradually changed when they formally established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992.
India recognised Israel as early as 1950, but did not establish diplomatic ties until 1992. During the Suez crisis in 1956 the then Israeli foreign minister Moshe Sharett visited India as the Israeli army pushed into Egypt after Egyptian President Gamam Abdel Nasser nationalised the canal; while India played the role of mediator alongside the UK, the US and Yugoslavia.
During the Sino-Indian war in 1962, Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru sought arms from Israel, writing to Israeli PM Ben Gurion, and he responded, forming the foundations for defense cooperation between the two countries. This paved way for increased bilateral cooperation over the years as India sought more arms in their war with Pakistan in 1965 as well as in 1971.
Throughout much of the 1970 and 1980s, India kept its distance from Israel publicly due to its support for the Palestinian cause. India was a founding member of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) that was supportive of anti-colonial struggles around the world which explains their support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).iii India was astonishingly one of the first non-Arab states to recognise Palestinian independence. There were several geopolitical issues that shaped India’s standpoint during the 1970s and 80s. The seemingly antagonist position between India and Israel also involved India’s diplomatic strategy of trying to counter Pakistan’s influence in the Arab world as well as of safeguarding its oil supplies from the Gulf.
There were other major motives behind India’s anti-Israel stance. India has a large Muslim population and their antagonism towards Israel played a major role in delaying diplomatic relations, as politicians feared that they may lose Muslim votes in key regions if they were to formalise ties.iv Also, was the fact that thousands of Indian citizens worked in the Gulf, helping keep its foreign exchange reserves afloat.
Even before establishing formal ties, India and Israel managed to collaborate in specific areas, with India’s main intelligence agency RAW (research and analysis wing) and Israel’s Mossad having signed a secret cooperation agreement in the areas of security, intelligence and military equipment.v The two top intelligence agencies established relationships since the 1960s. This was remarkable because throughout the 1970s and 80s their bilateral relations were sour. The situation started to shift in 1989 as three major developments sowed the seeds of change: first, the beginning of the era of coalition politics in India; second, the beginning of Pakistan-sponsored insurgency in Kashmir; and finally, break-up of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War coupled with the fall-out from the reversal of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.vi Since the early 1990s, the growing insurgent activities in Kashmir sponsored by Pakistan heightened regional security environment of India and the then opposition party BJP kept pressurising the government to normalise relations with Israel. After the end of the Cold War, India, like many other countries had to make major changes to their foreign policy to accommodate the changing international milieu. It went towards economic liberalisation, opening its doors to other nations and subsequently formalised diplomatic relations with Israel. It was however kept low-profile due to India’s interests in the Middle East.
India gave a number of reasons to justify the 1992 opening of formal relations, which are as follows:
1. Israel’s criticality to what happens in West Asia and the Gulf, that is a part of India’s extended neighbourhood impacting its strategic space, energy supplies and the 6 million Indians living in the region.
2. Sophisticated defence equipment , technology and systems from Israel; potential cooperation in security and defence including counter terrorism.
3. Absence of any quid pro quo from the Arab states
4. Agricultural prowess including related technologies of Israel.
More recently the economic rivalry between India and China plays a role in this context. The growing relations between China and Pakistan have raised insecurities, especially the fact that Pakistan are the largest recipient of Chinese arms. These issues gave India more reasons to build-up their own arms and as Israel are among the top arms manufacturers in the world with one of the best research and development facilities as well as a supposedly good counter-terrorism unit, there are more reasons to increase cooperation in the field of security and defence.
First Israeli PM visit to India
Ariel Sharon was the first Israeli PM to visit India in 2003 and the bilateral relations between the two nations started gaining publicity. State visits from officials started to take place since the establishment of diplomatic relations. This laid the framework for further cooperation in various areas; Agreements on Cooperation in the field of Health Sciences and Medicine and on Cooperation in combating illicit trafficking and abuse of narcotic drugs and psychotic substances were signed in 2003. In the same year, more significant agreements were signed in the field of protection of the environment, and another on the exemption of Visa requirements of holders of diplomatic, official and service passports.
2005 saw a MoU on India-Israeli Research and Development Fund Initiative while in 2006 a major pact was signed in the field of agriculture cooperation.
Bilateral trade progressed rapidly since 1992. From a base of USD 200 million in 1992 comprising primarily of diamonds, merchandise trade has diversified and the overall figure stood at an astonishing USD 5.19 billion in 2011. In 2016 the figure slumped to USD 4.16 billion in 2016 (excluding defence) with the balance of trade in Israel’s favour. Trade in diamonds constitutes over 53 percent of bilateral trade. After China and Hong Kong, India is Israel’s thirds largest trading partner in Asia. Currently the sectors forming the diversified bilateral trade include pharmaceuticals, agriculture, IT and telecom, and homeland security. India’s major exports to Israel include precious stones and metals, chemical products, textiles and textile articles, while major exports from Israel include precious stones and metals, chemicals and mineral products, base metals and machinery and transport equipment.
Cooperation between the two nations increased dramatically ever since the election of India’s new Hindu nationalist BJP government led by Narendra Modi in 2014. This was followed by a first ever visit by an Israeli defence minister in 2015. The current prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Modi of India met for the first time at a UN General Assembly in 2014 where they discussed economic, technological, and agricultural collaboration for the future, while Netanyahu expressed his concerns about a nuclear Iran and the spread of radical Islam throughout Middle East.ix In 2017, Modi made a stand alone visit to Israel- the first ever by an Indian PM.
Just weeks before modi’s historic visit, Netanyahu’s cabined agreed on measures aimed at increasing Israel’s non-diamond exports to India by 25 percent while establishing a new 40 million USD joint innovation, research and development fund. In July this year Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) signed an agreement with India’s KSU in July 2018, to operate Israeli Taxibot semi-robotic vehicles at India’s New Delhi and Mumbai airports. Taxibot is connected to planes which taxi the airplanes from the airport’s jet bridge without the use of the airplane’s main engines.x
Israel in recent years have taken a strategic decision aimed at strengthening economic relations with China, Japan and India. Major Indian software companies including TCS, Infosys, Tech Mahindra and Wipro have began to penetrate the Israeli market. During PM Modi’s visit in July 2017, the first meeting of the newly established India-Israel CEOs Forum took place.
Defence cooperation: military equipment and technology
Defence cooperation forms one of the strongest aspects of the bilateral relations. India is the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment, while Israel is India’s largest customer after Russia.xii
Israel produces some of the most sophisticated, cutting edge weapons systems in the world and India have been major buyers for a while now. India buys weapons systems for their armed forces, including navy and air force.
Since the 1990s, India purchased UAVs, drones, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) radar systems, anti-tank missiles and many more weapons systems in deals worth billions of dollars. In 2007, the two nations signed a 2.5 billion DSD deal to develop an anti-aircraft weapons systems in India, and in 2009xiii, Israel sold Barak 8 air defence systems to India for a staggering 1.1 billion USD. In 2011 Indian army bought more than 1000 units of Israeli X-95 assault rifle to use in counterinsurgency operation. In 2011 there were reports of a deal in which India were to purchase a large number of Israeli Spike anti-tank missiles, launchers, and related equipment worth nearly a billion dollars, from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems;xiv. Although the old contract with Rafael was cancelled, India has recently been on the verge of signing a 500 million USD deal with Israel to buy 4500 Spike missiles in a government-to-government purchase which could be finalised any moment.
Israel also provides India with military technologies, and strategies for count-terrorism, including offering assistance following the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Shifting Israel-Palestine stance
In 2015, India abstained from voting against Israel at the UN human rights commission signalling a shift in its Israel-Palestine policy. However in 2017 it voted for an Arab-sponsored resolution that rejected the US recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel.
Despite a recent setback taking place due to India having voted against the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the bilateral relations between the two nations have been growing stronger since the arrival of Modi making way for a new era of collaboration. In early 2018, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace for the first time ever to a commercial flight to Israel with the inauguration of an Air India route between New Delhi and Jerusalem.xvii
It seems today that the history of advocacy for the Palestinian cause is gradually diminishing as India is growing in alliance with Israel in more areas of cooperation and assistance. While India racks up more arms deals and equips its military with more sophisticated weapons systems and technology, it will be interesting to see further developments especially in the field of defence and security cooperation and find out what their main objectives are.