Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks as his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during a signing ceremony at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on January 15, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks as his then-Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during a signing ceremony at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on January 15, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi

This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of India-Israel diplomatic relations, which were formally established on January 29, 1992, though in fact India had recognized the Jewish state way back on September 17, 1950.

It was newly independent India’s anxieties about the creation of Pakistan – also established on religious grounds – that ensured that until the early 1990s New Delhi remained largely indifferent, unfamiliar or even hostile toward the very idea of a Jewish state.

But Pakistan was also the reason for the intelligence agencies of India and Israel connecting in the 1950s and staying that way for long time. However, India’s problems with Pakistan also made it conscious of cultivating Arab nations, and therefore ties with Israel remained under wraps.

India remained a staunch supporter of Palestine and even today New Delhi continues to register its unwavering commitment to the two-state solution of separate nations of Israel and Palestine. 

India-Israel strategic partnership

The continuation of ties with Israel since 1992 is often explained in terms of India’s overall drift toward greater pragmatism in its foreign relations. As a result, defense and security cooperation marks the bedrock of the India-Israel strategic partnership, which was formally announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017.

That was first ever visit by an Indian head of government to the Jewish state, and relations have been on an upswing ever since.

Also, after India’s time-tested friend Russia, Israel is now the second-largest supplier of military equipment to India, followed by France. India’s much-hyped arms purchases from the US – which are credited for this upswing in India-Israel relations – moved from second to fourth position between the 2011-15 and 2016-20 periods.

In fact, India’s arms imports from Israel rose by 175% during the 2015-19 period, making Israel a leading supplier of military equipment, with its arms exports hitting a record high of US$9.2 billion in 2017, though that shrank to $8.3 billion for 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Second, India’s arms imports from Israel have now moved into a deeper defense partnership in the form of licensed production, technology transfers and joint research and development.

Israel has earned credibility as a supplier of India’s defense hardware in times of need and for being quick at making deliveries at rather short notice.  

Widening and deepening of ties

The two countries’ cooperation has also expanded in other sectors of high technology and innovation, especially in agriculture, water management, pharmaceuticals, information technology and so on.

Their overall trade, excluding arms imports, as a result had risen from a meager $200 million in 1993 to $4.14 billion in the period of April 2020 to February 2021. Israel is one of the few nations with which India is at an advanced stage of negotiations for a free-trade agreement.

Officials of India and Israel now confidently talk of their societies being connected by deep civilizational bonds, through their freedom struggles and India being a home for Jews since ancient times as a rare example of a nation where Jews thrived for centuries as they enriched India’s composite culture.

To top it all, the personal bonhomie of Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu was on display for one and all during the latter’s time in office. But his departure also brings its own challenge as India re-engages with the post-Netanyahu coalition government. 

It took Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar well over two years to make his first visit to Israel last October to familiarize himself with the new leaders and to deliver Modi’s invitation to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to visit India. But as early as August next year, Bennett is scheduled to be replaced by Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, who is currently designated as foreign minister and alternative prime minister.

The other challenge to India comes from its arch-rival China, which has rapidly expanded its outreach to the Middle East region including Israel. The new $1.7 billion container port built in Haifa by China’s Shanghai International Port Group and China Harbor Engineering Company now upgrading Israel’s only other port of Ashdod have implications for India’s defense engagements with Israel and its neighbors.

For instance, this has raised concerns about possible Chinese surveillance of the movement of American, Indian or even Israeli or other navies using these port facilities.

Neighboring Abu Dhabi has signed a 35-year concession agreement with China Ocean Shipping Company to develop a new container terminal at Khalifa port with a promise to make it a major transit hub in the United Arab Emirates.

Then there are other uncertainties that flow from Houthi missile strikes on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and these two nations’ trying to recalibrate their relations with Qatar, Turkey and Iran and the continued confusion over the Iran nuclear deal.

India’s multi-vectored engagement

These growing uncertainties in the face of Israel’s gradual rapprochement with the Arab world define the new context of India’s evolving multi-vectored engagement with Israel along with its neighbors. The fact that Modi’s upcoming visit to the region – originally scheduled for January 6 but now postponed to early February – will take him to Abu Dhabi and Kuwait underlines India’s desire to keep in step with the times.

At least Israel and the UAE – traditional allies of the US and recent partners of India – seem to be at home with India’s multi-vectored re-engagement.

For example, after the successful launch of the Quadrilateral Security Framework in the Indo-Pacific region, the US and India have taken Israel and UAE along to start a new “Quad” for their region.

The first meeting of foreign ministers of those four nations took place on October 20, 2021, when Lapid and Jaishankar in Tel Aviv were joined online by Antony Blinken and Abdullah bin Zayed. In March, this group is expected to hold its second – but first in-person – foreign ministers’ meeting to take this format forward.

Likewise, as in the Indo-Pacific region Japan, India and Australia launched their Trilateral Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, the year 2021 also saw the UAE, Israel and India sign a trilateral agreement for Israeli company Ecoppia to produce robotic solar-panel cleaning technology in India for a landmark project of the UAE. Responsible officials in these countries have forecast their trilateral trade to reach $110 billion by 2030. 

The success of the Abraham Accords is a reflection of Israel being able to adapt to this multi-vectored approach. These accords of August 2020 have allowed the UAE (which is home to a diaspora of more than 4 million Indians) to forge closer ties with Israel. This is the first example of normalized relations between Israel and any Arab state since Jordan in 1994, and before that the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979.

India’s multi-vectored approach also shows how it no longer seeks to limit its engagements to countering China. Indeed, respected commentators in the Middle East endorse this by arguing that unlike the Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Security Framework, this new US-UAE-India-Israel Quad seems far too deeply rooted in regional cooperation to get distracted by China.  

The world over, task-oriented plurilaterals and minilaterals are seen replacing old-school bilateral and multilateral forums. This calls for India and Israel to relocate their engagement in the larger region. 

As a trusted nation among most Middle East countries, India’s shift to this multi-vectored diplomacy promises to accelerate not just its partnership with Israel but also its early rapprochement with the Arab world.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.