Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will arrive in Israel at the beginning of July in the first-ever trip to this country by an Indian prime minister. The visit reflects the significant expansion in relations between the two countries since they established full diplomatic relations in 1992.
Since Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in May 2014, his administration has shed its predecessors’ reservations about regular public discussions regarding India’s ties with Israel. It is worth noting that Modi’s trip to Israel is not planned to be “balanced” with a visit to the Palestinian Authority, indicating that India has freed its relations with Israel from its historical commitment to the Palestinian issue. Indeed, India has modified its voting pattern at international organizations by refraining from joining the automatic majority against Israel.
India and Israel share high levels of threat perception and a common strategic agenda. Both have waged major conventional wars against their neighbors and have experienced low-intensity conflict and terrorism, and both are involved in protracted conflicts involving complex ethnic and religious components not always well understood by outsiders. Both also face weapons of mass destruction in the hands of their rivals.
The two nations share a common threat from the radical offshoots of Islam in the greater Middle East. Israel regards parts of the Arab world –Saudi Arabia in particular — as hubs for Islamic extremism, while India views Saudi-Pakistani relations with suspicion. Moreover, India fears the Pakistani nuclear arsenal might ultimately fall into the hands of Islamic radicals.
For Israel, Islamic radicals in the Arab world and in the Islamic Republic of Iran constitute a constant security challenge. This challenge has become more acute with Iran’s nuclear potential. The more recent Islamic State phenomenon has ramifications beyond the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, as its offshoots threaten the stability of Egypt and Jordan — Israel’s neighbors — and are increasingly sources of concern in south and southeast Asia.
India has gradually overcome its inhibitions and engaged in security cooperation with Israel. Following diplomatic normalization in 1992, India’s then-Defense Minister Sharad Pawar admitted to having already been cooperating with Israel on counterterrorism. This cooperation involves exchange of information on the finances, recruitment patterns, and training of terrorist groups, and is conducted away from the public eye. The November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks underscored the need for better counterterrorism preparations in India and elicited greater cooperation with Israeli agencies.
Arms supply and technology transfer have become important components in the bilateral relationship. Initially, Russian failure to deliver promised weapons at expected prices or schedules led India to turn to Israeli companies to upgrade some of its aging Soviet platforms, such as its Mig-21s and T-72 tank fleet.
Difficulties in the development of weapons systems at home have led to the purchase of Israeli products and to partnership in developing advanced military technology. New Delhi purchased Israeli advanced radar and communications equipment, and turned also to Israel for portable battlefield radars, hand-held thermals, night warfare vision equipment, and electronic fences to improve border monitoring. A long list of Israeli military items, such as ammunition, UAV parts, and even missiles (Spike anti-armor, the Python-4 air-to-air, naval Barak-8 surface-to-air) are being produced in India.
The airborne Phalcon radar (mounted on the Russian IL-76 transport aircraft) Airborne Early Warning and Control System, and the long-range Green Pine radar, are examples of high-end items. The sale of the Phalcon by Israel to India required American approval, which was secured in May 2003. India signed a contract for the purchase of two additional Phalcon/IL-76 AWACS, valued at $1 billion, during the November 2016 visit of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to India. Israel was the third-largest arms supplier to India in the three years ending March 2016.
In April 2017, India signed a contract worth about $2 billion to procure anti-tank missiles and air defense systems from Israel Aerospace Industries. This was the largest order in Israel’s history. One month later, IAI secured another contract for $630 million to supply Barak-8 missiles to the Indian Navy. Both deals involve technology transfer and production in India. These deals are part of Modi’s $250 billion plan to modernize the Indian armed forces by 2025, amid tensions with neighbors China and Pakistan.
The Indian-Israeli nexus has various Indian Ocean implications, particularly in response to China’s growing presence. The Indian Ocean, where India is an important actor, has become an area of growing interest for Israel because of its apprehensions about Iran and Pakistan.
Indian links with Israel also have the potential to smooth over some of the remaining difficulties India has in dealing with the United States, given the U.S.-Israel friendship.
India believes its normalization of relations with Israel in 1992 had a positive effect on the American disposition toward India. The often-exaggerated power of the Jewish lobby in America was appreciated in New Delhi. In the 1990s, American Jewish organizations valued the importance of India for the U.S. and for Israel, as well as the potential advantages of nurturing good relations with the Indian community in the U.S., whose congressional power is on the rise. Many members of the U.S.-India Political Action Committee lobby group, which was formed in September 2002, expressed the desire to emulate American Jewish groups and showed interest in cooperation.
The Jewish and Indian lobbies worked together to gain the Bush administration’s approval for Israel’s sale of the Phalcon to India. Moreover, in July 2003, they were successful in adding an amendment to a bill that gave aid to Pakistan while calling on Islamabad to stop Islamic militants from crossing into India and to prevent the spread of WMD. In the fall of 2008, Jewish support was important in passing the U.S.-India nuclear deal through Congress, which allowed India access to nuclear technology for civilian use despite its not being a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Two strategic developments of the 21st century are likely to strengthen the strategic glue between India and Israel: the decline of the U.S. and the rise of China. In the Middle East, the Obama administration projected weakness and encouraged Iran’s quest for hegemony. U.S. weakness inevitably has ripple effects around the globe, and Asian states view the declining American role with concern. It is not clear whether President Donald Trump, who displayed isolationist impulses during his election campaign, will adopt a more assertive foreign policy than his predecessor or how he will confront China.
India and Israel represent two ancient civilizations. They share a British colonial past and became independent at almost the same time (in 1947 and 1948) in the post-World War II decolonization wave. Both were born as the results of messy partitions and have maintained democratic regimes under adverse conditions. Nevertheless, it took over four decades to establish a fruitful bilateral relationship.
For Israel, good relations with India reflect awareness of structural changes in the international system as the center of gravity moves to Asia and the Pacific Rim. India is an extremely important protagonist that requires Israel’s utmost attention.
Prof. Efraim Inbar is a professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, founding director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum.