India's Narendra Modi will travel to Israel in May, the first visit by an Indian prime minister. India and Israel have signed a large defense-procurement deal that will serve to tighten diplomatic relations between the two countries. Photo: Wikipedia
India's Narendra Modi will travel to Israel in May, the first visit by an Indian prime minister. India and Israel have signed a large defense-procurement deal that will serve to tighten diplomatic relations between the two countries. Photo: Wikipedia

Israel and India have signed a deal for the provision of an advanced defense system of medium-range surface-to-air missiles, launchers and communications technology. The US$2 billion contract, billed as the “largest in the history of Israel’s defense industry,” will boost India’s defense capability.

Importantly, it would draw India into a tighter relationship with Israel which is complicated. India voted against the UN Partition Plan in 1948 and although it extended recognition to the newly created state of Israel in 1950, it did not follow that up with full diplomatic relations. Thus “recognition-without-relations” was the hallmark of India’s Israel policy from 1950 to 1992. However, India did engage the Israelis covertly in this period. Its external intelligence agency — the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) — was in touch with the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.

Pro-Palestine phase a pragmatic move

During this period, India was strongly pro-Palestine in the Israel-Palestine conflict, citing solidarity with an oppressed people for its position. But there were pragmatic reasons, too. India did not want to anger Arab countries because they accounted for the bulk of its oil imports. Additionally, India needed Arab support in its conflict with Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir.

India was at the forefront of the campaign to mobilize international support for the Palestinian cause. Not only was it the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in 1974, but it was among the first countries to recognize the state of Palestine in 1988.
In 1992, India and Israel established formal diplomatic relations. The end of the Cold War, India’s growing ties with the US, and its mounting problem with terrorism prompted Delhi to reach out to Israel. The start of Israel-Palestine peace talks made it easy for India to justify the new relationship with Israel.

Since then, India-Israel relations have expanded steadily and cover military purchases, counter-terrorism cooperation, intelligence sharing, agriculture, etc. Bilateral trade, excluding defense purchases, grew from US$200 million in 1992 to $4.14 billion in 2015. Indian proponents of strong relations with Israel point out that defense ties have built India’s military capability. The Israelis are also sharing defense technology and manufacturing with local Indian partners. Besides, India didn’t gain much for its support of the Palestinians, the supporters argue, noting that for decades the Arab world backed Pakistan, not India, on the Kashmir issue. And when Arab countries are doing business with Israel, why shouldn’t India?

India may have gained from its cooperation with Israel but its increasing reluctance to speak up against Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians is indefensible. From expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause and condemning Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, India has shifted to abstaining, even voting against UN resolutions condemning Israeli violence. Understandably this shift in India’s position has evoked concern and anger among the Palestinians.

Indian PM to make unprecedented visit to Israel

Many in India, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and hawks in the security establishment, are enamored with Israel’s counter-terrorism tactics and believe that India should adopt these to deal with Pakistan-backed anti-India terrorist groups. Indeed, last year, soon after his government carried out “surgical strikes” on terrorist training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew parallels between the Indian strikes and those that Israel periodically carries out in the Occupied Territories.
Certainly, India has come a long way; from castigating Israel for “widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms” it is now proudly identifying with it.
Modi is expected to visit Israel in May to mark the 25th anniversary of India-Israel diplomatic relations. He will be the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel.

In the past, Indian dignitaries visiting Israel would take care to balance that visit with one to the Palestinian Authority. In 2015, President Pranab Mukherjee visited Tel Aviv and followed that up by visiting Ramallah. Will Modi do so too? Or will he make his commitment to Tel Aviv more obvious by making his Israel visit a standalone one?

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.

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