Ofra Bengio — Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University
Senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies
India and Israel have always had an enigmatic relation. While the two countries share many traits, it took them more than four decades to establish official diplomatic relations. India and Israel became independent almost at the same time, in the late 1940s, after a long struggle against British colonisation. Both nations boast a democratic system in a neighbourhood where democracy is frail or non-existent. Israel also has a rich ancient history similar to India, going back many millennia; this is evident in its rich culture and the many relics scattered around the country.
The main difference between the two countries, of course, is the size of the land and population: Israel’s population is around nine million, while India’s is 1, 400,000; Israel’s size is c. 20,770–22,072 sq. km in comparison to India’s 3,287,263 sq. km. Demographically speaking, the two do have one common denominator: they both have a vast Muslim minority that makes up 15–20 percent of the total population. From India’s point of view, this is one of the stumbling blocks in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
The main difference between the two countries, of course, is the size of the land and population: Israel’s population is around nine million, while India’s is 1, 400,000; Israel’s size is c. 20,770–22,072 sq. km in comparison to India’s 3,287,263 sq. km.
The relationship between India and Israel was initially based on popular consensus, and only much later became an official one. Israelis, especially the youth who were attracted to India’s culture and history, spearheaded the liaison. Coming in great throngs to visit India, they helped build people-to-people bridges. This provided an important infrastructure for a formal diplomatic relationship, which was established in 1992. However, while Israel had courted India throughout these years, the latter was reluctant to respond in kind.
What were India’s motives for shunning the Israeli initiatives at that time? As a young state, India had to take into account the Arab states’ numerical impact at the UN and their stance of boycotting Israel. Moreover, it could not afford to antagonise its Muslim population by establishing relations with the Jewish state. Sympathy with the Palestinian cause was a by-product of these motives. At the international level, in 1961, India became one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement, with Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s president, as a co-founder. This made ties with Israel even more complicated. Another obstacle was the fact that Israel was in the American orbit, while India in the Soviet one.
By 1992, many of these impediments were, however, removed. First, Egypt made its peace with Israel in 1979, thus breaking a huge anti-Israeli Arab taboo. Another Arab taboo was lifted in the Madrid conference held from 30 October to 1 November 1991. The conference sought to revive the Israeli–Palestinian peace process through negotiations by involving Arab countries, most importantly Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The very convocation of such a conference, with the participation of Israelis and Arabs, made it much easier for many countries, including India, to warm up relations with Israel. The 1993 Israeli–Palestinian Oslo Accord as well as the 1994 Israeli–Jordan Peace Agreement removed another important barrier in Indo–Israeli relations since India has had a strong commitment to the Palestinian cause. In the meantime, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, changing the entire structure of alliances in the world. These developments further legitimised Israel in the international arena and opened for it new venues amongst giant states including Russia, China and India.
In 1961, India became one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement, with Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s president, as a co-founder. This made ties with Israel even more complicated.. By 1992, many of these impediments were, however, removed.
Once the barriers were removed, relations between India and Israel improved rapidly. This became a strategic asset for both countries. The two countries then began cooperating in a range of areas, including cultural, political, economic and strategic fields. Israel supplied India with know-how in the agriculture and water fields, in which its expertise is so renowned that even Arab countries are willing to purchase its products via third parties. Israel also exported to India know-how in the fields of health, biotechnology and nanotechnology.
Strategically speaking, India and Israel developed close ties to combat terrorism, especially following the rise of extremist groups such as the Islamic State. Their collaboration included intelligence-sharing on terrorist groups, as well as joint training. In terms of weaponry, India became the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment, while Israel became the second-largest defence supplier to India after Russia, surpassing the United States. In just one decade, between 1999 and 2009, the military business between the two nations was worth around USD 9 billion.
Strategically speaking, India and Israel developed close ties to combat terrorism, especially following the rise of extremist groups such as the Islamic State.
The most dramatic turn took place at the political-diplomatic level, with the coming to power in 2014 of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India. His unique stance towards Israel proves that leaders do make big difference in relations between countries. Modi was the first Indian prime minister to have made an official visit to Israel in July 2017. Furthermore, he made clear a distinction between the Israeli and Palestinian issue by visiting only Israel, unlike earlier Indian officials, who visited both for the sake of diplomacy. Another important development from the Israeli point of view was that, under Modi, India abstained from voting against Israel in the United Nations in several resolutions. The chemistry between Prime Minister Modi and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was an important ingredient in boosting bilateral relations between the two countries. Netanyahu reciprocated Modi’s visit by visiting India in January 2018. During both these visits, the two parties signed scores of agreements aimed at boosting cooperation between the two states in various fields.
Indeed, the flourishing relations between the two countries is unprecedented amongst nations, considering the fact that Israel is such a small country while its counterpart, India, is a giant.