Written by Nicolas Blarel.
Since Modi’s election in 2014, an imminent visit to Israel has been discussed by the Indian media and even by India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Given Modi’s long-term interest in improving ties with Israel, illustrated notably by a visit to Israel as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2006, some observers expected a quick and decisive tilt to Tel Aviv during his first months in office. While Modi publicly spoke about his admiration for Israel’s military, agricultural and technological achievements, and regularly met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in international fora, it still took him three years to finally visit Tel Aviv in July 2017. Why did it take so long? And what can be expected from this three-day visit?
While both governments prefer to publicize cooperation in other fields, defence ties are still the main driver of this partnership.
A symbolic visit given the unique history of the India-Israel relationship
Modi’s path to Tel Aviv has been long and arduous because of the unique historical nature and evolution of this bilateral relationship. On July 4, when meeting Modi on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion airport, Netanyahu declared that Israel had waited for this visit for “seventy years”. Back in 1947, India had indeed opposed the partition of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel at the UN. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, instead promoted a one-state federal plan with specific rights for the Jewish minority. In spite of this initial position, India ended up recognizing Israel in September 1950 but deferred the establishment of diplomatic relations. During this time, India maintained some channels of communication with Israel, notably to buy weapons during the conflicts of 1962, 1967, and 1971, but publicly supported the Palestinian cause; it was the first non-Arab state to recognize the state of Palestine in 1988.
It was only in January 1992 that India established diplomatic relations with Israel under the Congress government of Narasimha Rao. The perception was that the normalization of ties with Tel Aviv was necessary for India to develop better relations with the US and to participate in the incipient peace process between Israel and Palestine. However, despite the establishment of diplomatic ties, no Indian Prime Minister visited Israel. Even the rise to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had historically advocated a rapprochement with Israel, did not lead to stronger public ties. By contrast, Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited New Delhi in September 2003.
As a result, this visit is in itself a major milestone in the bilateral relationship since Modi is the first serving Indian Prime Minister to travel to Israel, 25 years after the two countries established diplomatic relations and 14 years after Sharon’s visit. None of Modi’s predecessors had made this symbolic move given the historical legacy of support for Palestine and the concerns about diplomatic repercussions in the Middle-East and possible electoral costs at home.
The visit comes at an opportune time for Israel as the support from traditional allies, US and Western Europe, is not as forthcoming as it used to be. Close and public engagement with India is presented as part of Israel’s pivot to Asia to seek alternative markets and diplomatic allies. The fact that Modi is engaging in a standalone visit without the traditional stop by Ramallah is also perceived by Israel as a sign that India is finally de-hyphenating its relationships with Palestine and Israel. Since Modi’s election, India has no longer consistently voted to condemn Israel in multilateral organizations. This has been interpreted as a possible dilution of India’s traditional pro-Palestine position.
Beyond optics, a great deal of continuity in Modi’s approach to Israel
However, beyond the rhetoric, one should look at this visit as another stage in a long-term and gradual rapprochement between the two countries. The visit is mostly the public acknowledgement of what had until now mostly been a low-key but robust and mutually advantageous commercial and defence relationship over the last two decades.
While both governments prefer to publicize cooperation in other fields, defence ties are still the main driver of this partnership. Since 1999 and the Kargil war when Israel provided India with military equipment in its conflict against Pakistan, India has been purchasing an annual average of $1 billion of defence equipment and technology. India is the first market for Israeli defence exports and Israel is one of India’s main weapons suppliers after Russia and the US.
The visit aims to further cement collaboration in agriculture and water management, notably through the creation of a $40 million joint fund to promote mutual investments. However, most of this cooperation has been initiated and strengthened through the repeated visits of several Indian chief ministers to Tel Aviv to seek assistance from Israeli private companies.
The two countries have also announced projects to improve cooperation in pharmaceuticals, space technologies, IT, and cybersecurity but Israeli and Indian authorities have not announced any new major new deals. In addition, there are some remaining obstacles to increased trade cooperation. For instance, the bilateral Free Trade Agreement has been under negotiation since 2004 and is now at its third round of discussions. Trade has therefore plateaued since 2013 (when it peaked at around $6 billion).
As mentioned earlier, Modi’s path to Tel Aviv has also been more laborious than anticipated since 2014. In spite of expectations of a Israel bias, the Indian Prime Minister has resumed India’s traditional strategy of engaging all relevant regional players. Before going to Israel, Modi has first travelled to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar. Modi also anticipated criticism of his Israel trip by hosting Mahmoud Abbas in New Delhi in May 2017 and reasserting India’s support for an independent Palestinian state.
At the domestic level, an important obstacle has reportedly come from the concern among India’s 170 million Muslims, as well as in segments of India’s political elite, about a possible dilution of India’s traditional support of the Palestinian cause. However, Indian Muslims have only rarely mobilized at the political level to condemn a rapprochement with Israel. Since there is still a perception that there could be domestic electoral consequences, it is probably not a coincidence that the visit happened after the regional elections in Uttar Pradesh (a sate which hosts a strong Muslim population).
Prime Ministers Modi and Netanyahu were careful to label the existing relationship as a natural partnership rather than to call for a “strategic alliance” as former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra had in 2003. Given the existing structural constraints, and the current benefits of the transactional partnership, it will be important for both leaderships to carefully frame expectations about the direction of this relationship.
Nicolas Blarel is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Leiden University and the author of The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy Continuity, Change, and Compromise since 1922 (Oxford University Press, 2015). Image credit: Prime Minister of Israel/Flickr.