The historically unprecedented visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel may come as a surprise to some. India’s early leaders were lukewarm at best toward Israel, and the two countries were at odds during the Cold War. Today, India and Israel are strategic partners and Modi’s visit confirms a diplomatic realignment that began years ago.
India and Israel both obtained their independence after a fierce struggle against Great-Britain, and the two countries were partitioned because of religious and ethnic strife. The partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 between a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan produced a double Hindu/Muslim refugee tragedy (estimated at 14 million people) and a geographically divided Muslim state (Pakistan was split between its main landmass in the west and its eastern province, which became Bangladesh in 1971). British Palestine was also partitioned de facto in 1949 (with the Rhodes armistice agreements) between a Jewish-majority Israel and a geographically divided Muslim polity (the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip). This partition also produced a double-refugee phenomenon between Jews and Arabs.
Mahatma Gandhi opposed partition as a matter of principle. He strove for a pluralistic and unified India. So he certainly did not apply a double-standard by opposing the partition of Palestine, too. But he also opposed Zionism. Because he considered the Jews a religion and not a nation, he rejected their right to national self-determination (especially in Palestine which, he claimed, was the sole property of the Arabs). India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, formerly recognized Israel in 1950 but he refrained from establishing full diplomatic relations. Despite partition, India still had a large Muslim minority and Nehru did not want to provoke further unrest with a divisive diplomatic move. India also needed diplomatic support in its conflict with Pakistan, and would therefore not unnecessarily alienate Arab and Muslim states by upgrading relations with Israel.
During the Cold War, India aligned with the Soviet Union in spite of its officially “non-aligned” foreign policy. This diplomatic alignment further widened the rift between India and Israel, especially after the 1967 Six Day War (at the end of which the Soviet Union severed its diplomatic relations with Israel). The pro-Soviet foreign policy of India was institutionalized under Indira Gandhi’s premiership (1966-1977, and 1980-1984). Despite this official chasm, however, Israel provided weapons to India in its conflicts with China (in 1962) and with Pakistan (in 1971).
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, India lost its international backer. The United States, which had nominally supported Pakistan during the Cold War, was now interested in developing a strategic relationship with India, especially to counter-balance China’s growing power in Asia. This shift in US foreign policy was materialized by the 2008 Congress bill which allowed India to use nuclear technology (despite the fact that India was not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty).
India and Israel established full diplomatic relations in 1992. India’s conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir entered a danger zone when Pakistan detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1998 (India had been a military nuclear power since 1974). India could now benefit from Israel’s technological and military expertise at a low diplomatic cost. Hence the emergence of a strategic partnership between the two countries. In 1999, for example, Israel provided India with surveillance drones and laser-guided missiles during the “Kargil war” with Pakistan.
India’s rapprochement with Israel was also influenced by Indian domestic politics. There is a striking similarity between the political history of the two countries (besides partition). Both India and Israel were uninterruptedly ruled during the first three decades of their independence by a Socialist party: The Congress Party in India, and Mapai in Israel. The two countries had a marginalized and ostracized nationalist right: the Janata party in India (today’s BJP) and the Herut party in Israel (today’s Likud). Both the Indian and Israeli right-wing parties won their first election in 1977. BJP won the 1998 general election and it led a diplomatic realignment, which included a rapprochement with Israel. The Indian right was always staunchly pro-Israel and critical of Congress’ pro-Soviet and pro-Arab foreign policy. Narendra Modi brought BJP to power again in 2014 and he renewed his party’s pro-American and pro-Israel foreign policy.
Today, India is Israel’s largest importer of military equipment, and Israel is India’s third largest provider of military equipment after the United States and Russia. Prime Minister Modi has approved a $250 billion multiyear plan to modernize the Indian army (India’s two major regional rivals are Pakistan and China). Israel has been chosen by India as a key player in this modernization plan. In April 2017, for example, India’s Defense Ministry signed a $2 billion contract with the Israel Aircraft Industry (IAI) for the supply of missile defense systems.
Prime Minister Modi has also taken the unprecedented step of breaking ranks with the UN General Assembly’s “automatic majority,” which Arab States have exploited for four decades to pass one-sided resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Modi will not be visiting the Palestinian Authority during his trip to Israel, something the Palestinians will likely interpret as a snub.
Modi is uninhibited by the “Muslim vote” (14% of India’s population), as his BJP party draws its political strength from Hindu nationalism. He sees in radical Islam the common enemy of both India and Israel. As for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, strengthening ties with India is part of a wider strategy of diplomatic diversification meant to reduce Israel’s dependency on its growingly critical European partners.