Viewpoints, May 2016
Samuel C. Rajiv
Ties between India and Israel have their origins in 1992 when India decided to establish full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. While the decision in India was taken by a Congress-led coalition government, subsequent governments, especially those led by the right-of-centre Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have continued to nurture the relationship. In 2014, the BJP secured an absolute majority following an overwhelming victory in the Indian general elections.
Under the leadership of Nerendra Modi and the BJP, Israel and India have enjoyed closer than ever relations. Credit: Avi Ohayon, Government Press Office
Under BJP Prime Minister Nerendra Modi, ties between the two nations have gained momentum. The party expressed strong views on national security issues while in opposition for a decade. As holders of an absolute majority since 2014, BJP has not been constrained by the views of coalition partners, which may have been less favourable towards Israel.
The relationship between India and Israel has a largely non-partisan background. The dominant aspect of the relationship remains defense, with Israel emerging as a strong partner in times of need. Israel’s support during the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan was critical. The Jewish state subsequently provided cutting-edge equipment like Phalcon AWACS to the Indian military. Similar systems were denied to the Chinese military due to American pressure.
“Developing ties between Israel and India, based on the latter’s growing defense needs and Israel’s rich experience in the field, are expected to prosper in coming years.”
New Delhi has sought to downplay the strategic aspects of the relationship in the public domain. This was observed in Parliament, where Congress as well as BJP defence ministers refused to divulge details about the nature of the relationship. Nevertheless, robust institutional interaction takes place between the national security establishments of both nations. These include visits by the respective chiefs of the defence forces, port calls by Indian naval ships at Haifa and joint working groups (JWG) on a range of issues.
Given the extensive ties between the two nations, the lack of an Indian Defense Ministerial visit to Israel stands out as jarring. While then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited India in September 2003 (during the premiership of BJP stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee), there has been no reciprocal visit from an Indian Prime Minister to date.
Since 2014, there have been conscious efforts to correct this anomaly. Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been in regular contact, having met at international fora like the side lines of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2014 and the Climate Summit in Paris in December 2015. President Pranab Mukerjee visited Israel and the Palestinian Teritories in October 2015, followed by Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in January 2016. Modi is expected to visit Israel in the near future.
Samuel Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.