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As Modi lands in Israel, a new era in India-Israel relations

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The visit should be viewed as a “coming out” party for bilateral ties.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) receives Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Ben Gurion Airport, in Tel Aviv on July 4,, 2017. Photo credit: PIB

By Ronak D. Desai

Ronak DesaiPrime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Israel earlier today to further strengthen bilateral ties between India and Israel. The three-day state visit is the first by an Indian prime minister to Israel in the Jewish state’s history since its founding nearly 70 years ago. 

The past 25 years have witnessed India and Israel embark upon a multidimensional strategic partnership spanning multiple areas of cooperation. Although defense and security ties have emerged as the cornerstones of the relationship, cooperation between the two countries spans virtually every arena of human endeavor imaginable: from agriculture, technology and education, to space exploration, entrepreneurship, and trade. 

Such a relationship was inconceivable just a quarter-century ago. Despite sharing many similarities with Israel — a British colonial past, a democratic system of government, and hostile neighbors — India historically maintained a diplomatic distance from the Jewish state. New Delhi’s position was motivated by both domestic and foreign policy concerns. Indian leaders did not want to risk alienating its 150 million Muslims citizens at home or the greater Arab world abroad. The result was a lopsided policy that reflexively supported the Palestinian position at the expense of Israel. India refused to grant the Jewish state full diplomatic recognition and instead became one of its chief critics in international fora such as the United Nations. 

The end of the Cold War forced New Delhi to adjust to new governing realities and reappraise its posture toward the Middle East. India, under the leadership of Congress Party Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, extended full diplomatic relations to Israel in 1992 and initiated a new chapter in bilateral ties. New Delhi’s desire to establish closer relations with the United States also represented a major factor in India revising its policies in the region.

Once full diplomatic relations were established, a convergence of strategic interests quickly helped bind India and Israel together. Chief among these was the terrorist threat both countries had perennially confronted since earning their independence from the British seven decades ago. Long before the 9/11 attacks, both India and Israel had been sounding the alarm of the threat terrorism posed to not just their respective countries, but to the entire international community. The shared threat both countries faced was put into sharp focus during the horrific 2008 Mumbai attacks during which a Jewish Chabad house was targeted by Islamist terrorists. 

Since normalization in 1992, both countries have overcome their estranged history, cooperating together in a plethora of different realms, with security and defense leading the way. India has earned the distinction of becoming Israel’s largest purchaser of arms and other sophisticated military equipment. Israel is now one of India’s principal military suppliers and has played a central role in upgrading and transforming the South Asian giant’s aging defense equipment. 

In fact, defense ties between the two states predate their diplomatic ones. Israel covertly provided critical military assistance to India during the country’s wars with China and Pakistan in 1962 and 1965, respectivelyeven in the absence of full diplomatic relations.  

Although both states worked assiduously to strengthen and accelerate ties in recent years, many observers in both countries rightly noted that India still appeared reluctant to publicize its cooperation with Israel and preferred downplaying its ties with the Jewish state. Despite actively pursuing a more evenhanded approach toward Israel and the region, some Indian officials still harbored the same concerns as before: that appearing too close to the Jewish state would upset India’s domestic Muslim population and unnecessarily impair India’s ties to the Arab world. Partially for these reasons, no Indian prime minister had ever visited Israel despite repeated invitations by Israelleadership, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s own groundbreaking and historic visit to India in 2003. 

For these reasons, Prime Minister Modi’s state visit to Israel this week should be viewed as a “coming out” party for India-Israel ties and herald a new, unprecedented phase in bilateral relations. Modi has been a longstanding supporter of Israel, having expressed his admiration for the Jewish state on numerous occasions. He even visited Israel in 2006 as chief minister of Gujarat which resulted in myriad of agreements between the Indian and Jewish states

Many anticipated that Modi’s election as India prime minster in May 2014 would forge stronger India-Israel ties. Modi’s unprecedented visit to the Jewish state this week confirms this view. His trip will see the unveiling of several new initiatives, defense deals, and business agreements. Most importantly, it signals the priority India gives its relationship with Israel and places the bilateral on even more solid footing by expanding cooperation and collaboration even further.

(Ronak D. Desai is an Affiliate at the Belfer Center’s India and South Asia Program and a Fellow at New America. He is a recognized expert on India-Israel relations whose scholarship on the topic dates back more than 13 years. He previously worked as a Research Fellow at the American Jewish Committee in Washington DC. He can be reached at Ronak.Desai@post.harvard.edu or at @ronakdd.)

More from Ronak D. Desai:

Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi launches children’s rights campaign in Bangladesh (April 5, 2017)

NSA spying claims against BJP are unlikely to impact US-India relations (July 12, 2014)

Will India’s rupee crisis affect its foreign policy too? (August 23, 2013)

A diplomatic tightrope between the United States and Iran (January 12, 2013)

Behind the Saudi tilt towards India (December 18, 2012)