Balancing Act To Win-Win Strategic Partnership — How India-Israel Ties Have Evolved Over The Years

Balancing Act To Win-Win Strategic Partnership — How India-Israel Ties Have Evolved Over The Years

From a hesitant defence partnership behind the curtains to open and robust strategic ties, the India-Israel relations have become multi-dimensional in just over three decades. In 1992, then Indian Prime Minister Narsimha Rao took a path-breaking diplomatic move to open the doors to full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel, with which many countries in Asia and the world kept enough distance to avoid domestic backlash. Though India extended de jure recognition to Israel in 1950 and permitted the country to maintain a consulate in Mumbai, formal bilateral relations remained mired in cold war dynamics.

However, without diluting its principled stand on the Palestinian State, which in early years prevented India from engaging with the newly emerged Asian tiger, the then Indian policy planners took advantage of the changing geopolitical equations in the post cold war milieu. Since then, the bilateral relations have not only stood the test of time but also matured into a dependable win-win partnership for mutual benefit. Successive Indian governments, though keeping the relationship in low profile, silently worked towards a multifaceted security, economic and trade relations.

During his October 2021 visit to Israel, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said, “India considers Israel in many ways as perhaps our most trusted and innovative partner”. In response, top Israeli economic ministry official Ron Malka said: “Israel’s ties with India are the biggest achievement we have done with any country in international affairs.”

Though the then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon was the first highest dignitary to visit India in 2003, Narendra Modi could make the first ever Indian prime ministerial visit only in 2017, which was described as historic and landmark in the India-Israel bilateral relations. West Asian anti-Israeli regimes had taken note of this but it did not have an adverse impact on their diplomatic relations with India. 

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This speaks of India’s stature and standing in the Arab world. India’s deepening relations with the Gulf countries, especially with Israel’s arch foe Saudi Arabia, earned the country a seat within the newly founded West Asian QUAD comprising Israel, India, United Arab Emirates and the United States — dubbed as I2U2. The I2U2 first leaders’ summit was held virtually in July this year, during which there was an agreement to deepen the economic ties between the Middle East and the Indo-pacific, to create new partnerships to tackle global challenges like food insecurity and clean energy technology. The summit was seen as adding momentum for a free trade agreement with Israel and strengthening economic ties between India and the UAE where 3.5 million Indian nationals reside.

Simultaneously, as a champion of the Palestinian cause, India has earned the goodwill of the Arab world also. India was the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1974, and also supported and co-sponsored a proposal to make Palestine a non-member observer state of the United Nations in 2012. 

On the back of India’s strong relationship with Arab countries and as a partner nation in I2U2, India can now play an active role in managing peace, security and stability in the region. As India has a deep stake in the affairs of West Asia, not only because of India’s dependence on the region’s petroleum resources but also its over 8 million diaspora, Indian economic, political and security interests can now be better promoted and protected with its emergence as a major player in the economic and security arena. 

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Deepening India-Israel relations has a special meaning not only from the perspective of security and economy but also from the angle of strengthening India’s hold in West Asia. This will help counter the rising Chinese influence in the Arab world.

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India-Israel Security Cooperation 

Sensitive to the feelings of Muslims, India had to do a tightrope walk to not only maintain its cordial relations with the Arab world but also take care of its national security interests, for which Israel extended a hand of friendship. Israel’s emergency critical military assistance during the 1999 Kargil conflict is often cited as its commitment towards India. Both the countries have now developed mutual faith and confidence as India has hugely benefited from Israel’s anti-terrorism expertise.

In the defence sector, Israel has assisted Indian armed forces with latest weaponry from rifles to drones to missiles. Israel is now India’s third largest defence supplier and India has become the largest export destination of Israeli defence systems and technology. This buyer-seller relationship is now getting transformed into joint developer and producer of weapon systems.

Though defence and security are the original pillars of India-Israel relations, the cooperative ties have expanded into economy, trade, agriculture, cyber security, tourism, education, science & technology. Israeli agricultural and water experts are helping India achieve food and water security.

In October 2021, the India-Israel Joint Working Group on Defence Cooperation met and decided to set up a task force to put together a comprehensive 10-year roadmap to identify new areas of cooperation. Both countries soon added a new dimension to it to bolster their vibrant defence ties by issuing a new landmark vision statement. 

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The two countries also signed a letter of Intent on enhancing cooperation in the field of Futuristic Defence Technologies during the visit of Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz in June to mark 30 years of bilateral diplomatic relations between the two nations. India had then said both the countries have declared their intention to further develop defence cooperation in a manner that harnesses Israel’s “technological advance and operational experience”, together with India’s “extraordinary development and production capabilities…in line with Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make in India’ vision”. This means Indian and Israeli defence companies would be jointly producing weapon systems in India, not only for Indian armed forces but for the international market too.

To celebrate this partnership of 30 years, Israeli PM Naftali Bennett was scheduled to visit India in April. Though the visit got postponed, a rescheduled itinerary is eagerly awaited in India.

The author is a strategic affairs analyst.

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