Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India concluded a three-day visit to Israel. His visit was genuinely historic as he was the first Indian prime minister to ever undertake such a trip. Indeed, the visit may well signify an entirely new phase in the Indo-Israeli relationship. Though India had recognized the state of Israel in 1950, it was only in 1992 that it had finally accorded the country full diplomatic status. Why has it taken the two states decades to finally arrive at a stage where they can enjoy a cordial and indeed close relationship? The answer to this question is complex and has complex historical and ideological roots.
India had formally voted against the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947. In considerable part, its opposition had stemmed from India’s anti-colonial history and the sympathies that its principal nationalist leaders had for the Palestinian cause. Even a letter from Albert Einstein pleading the Israeli cause had left the most prominent exponent of Indian nationalism, Mahatma Gandhi, India’s most noted nationalist leader, unmoved. Not surprisingly, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, chose to maintain a studious diplomatic distance from the nascent state. His successors, while accepting clandestine military support from Israel during India’s wars with Pakistan in both 1965 and 1971, nevertheless did little to enhance ties with the country.
Their decision to maintain the diplomatic reserve stemmed from three sources. First, it emanated from what institutional economists refer to as “path dependence.” Once organizations embark upon a certain policy direction only significant shocks, from within or without, lead them to fundamentally change course. India’s foreign policy establishment proved to be no exception to this principle. Second, India’s policymakers convinced themselves that India’s substantial Muslim population would take umbrage with an open embrace of Israel. Even though there was no clear evidence to this end, the belief alone was so strong that none within the political leadership dare chose to challenge its veracity. Ironically, at the end of the Cold War, when India chose to finally extend full diplomatic recognition to Israel, there was barely a whimper of protest from India’s vast Muslim community. Third, it had also shied away from closer ties with Israel for fear of a backlash from the Arab world. However, at the Cold War’s end, with a general re-appraisal of India’s foreign policy orientation, it became easier for the political establishment to accord Israel full diplomatic recognition.
Since then, the relationship has undergone a fitful, but dramatic transformation. Previous governments under the tutelage of the Indian National Congress (INC), because of their inheritance of the legacy of the nationalist movement, had been somewhat circumspect about openly embracing the Indo-Israeli relationship. Nevertheless, they had gradually expanded the scope and dimensions of existing ties. As a consequence, there had been considerable growth in diverse areas ranging from trade to military cooperation. Much of this expansion, however, was carried out without any great fanfare because the INC remained wary about alienating a key domestic electoral constituency and was also concerned about not troubling India’s Arab partners.
Similar misgivings do not appear to concern the current, right-of-center, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime of Prime Minister Modi. It has concluded that it can cede much of the Muslim vote to the INC and still achieve electoral success both in national and most state level elections. No doubt, it has also concluded that the divisions in the Arab world as well as India’s enhanced global stature ensures that improvements in relations with Israel will not lead to any significant diplomatic costs being imposed on India. More specifically, it needs to be borne in mind that long before assuming the premiership, Modi had successfully sought to attract investment to his home state of Gujarat from Israel. Consequently, he could draw on his prior ties to the country as he planned this path-breaking visit.
Apart from the obvious symbolic significance of this visit, what exactly was accomplished during it? Even prior to the visit, Israel had emerged as a significant defense partner for India. For example, in April of this year, India had placed an order amounting to $2 billion to acquire various forms of high-technology weaponry, including drones, from Israel. There is every reason to believe that in the wake of this visit defense cooperation will only be enhanced further. Also, as of 2016, bilateral trade, which had once been of trivial importance, was approaching nearly $5 billion.
More specifically, during the visit, the two sides signed seven different agreements that will lead to greater cooperation in such areas as space, water management, energy, and agriculture. They also agreed to set up a five-year joint technology fund. Beyond these particular accords, they affirmed their existing commitment to counterterrorism cooperation—a matter of no trivial significance to either country.
Since by all accounts the trip was both a substantive as well as a symbolic success, what could possibly trouble the relationship in the likely future? The issue that the two leaderships seem to have deftly avoided is India’s robust diplomatic relationship with Iran. Despite public professions about long-standing civilizational links, the bilateral diplomatic warmth is based upon cold, hard calculations. India needs Iran for access to hydrocarbons especially natural gas, for an alternative route to Afghanistan (given the state of the India-Pakistan rivalry), and to ensure the political quiescence of its very substantial Shia minority. Consequently, it can ill-afford to distance itself from Iran. Israel, for various national security concerns, on the other hand, remains deeply wary about the country, its causes, and its goals.
This is an arena where the budding Indo-Israeli relationship will no doubt diverge. The task for policymakers in both Tel Aviv and New Delhi will be to build upon the significant convergence of interests and not allow this issue to disrupt an emerging partnership that could prove beneficial to both states, especially since it has taken so very long to come to fruition.
Sumit Ganguly, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is a professor of political science and holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.