India and Israel's Secret Love Affair
The Indo-Israeli defense relationship is once again in focus following Benjamin Netanyahu's "sky is the limit" comment after meeting Narendra Modi in New York back in September—and especially after the signing of the long-delayed $144 million deal on Barak I missiles in October. Another milestone was crossed in November when New Delhi and Tel Aviv successfully tested the Barak 8 anti-missile system—a joint project developing an aerial defense system for naval vessels. Moreover, since Modi took power this summer, New Delhi has purchased a whopping $662 million worth of Israeli arms.
So is the Indo-Israeli strategic relationship likely to be fundamentally different now that Modi is in power?
Although Indo-Israeli ties are undoubtedly on the upswing, history suggests that Modi is not likely to have a fundamental impact on the substance of the bilateral relationship.
During the early part of the Cold War, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru briefly considered inviting Israel to the 1955 Bandung Conference, but eventually decided against doing so in order to appease Arab and Middle Eastern states. While this carved out India’s Cold War foreign policy of opposing Israel and siding with Palestine, New Delhi’s military ties with Tel Aviv, however modest, began by the 1960s. Not only did Israel provide military assistance to India in its wars in 1962, 1965 and 1971, but Tel Aviv was also one of the first countries to recognize Bangladesh following India’s victory in its 1971 war against Pakistan. When the traditionally pro-Israel and Hindu, right-wing, Jan Sangh-led government was briefly in power from 1977 to 1979, Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan paid a secret visit to New Delhi in August 1977 to further expand bilateral ties.
While Prime Minister Indira Gandhi mostly maintained her father’s pro-Palestine position, her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi met his Israeli counterpart in September 1985 during the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting, which was the first such open meeting between the prime ministers of the two states. Indian concerns over the fast-advancing Pakistani nuclear program are believed to have facilitated these improved ties. However, it was not until 1992—after the end of the Cold War and India’s 1991 economic liberalization—that New Delhi formally established diplomatic relations with Israel. Nevertheless, it is important to note that even without formal diplomatic relations, Indo-Israeli military ties existed during the Cold War. These ties have certainly increased in volume since the 1990s.
However, a constant theme in the history of Indo-Israeli relations has been that their public visibility has been conditioned on which party holds powers in New Delhi. Specifically, each time a Hindu nationalist coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power in New Delhi, the visibility of the bilateral ties increases, but not the substance. On the other hand, the Congress Party has tended to downplay India’s ties to the Jewish state whenever it holds power.
In this sense, the Modi government’s proximity to Israel harkens back to the previous BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. In 2000, for instance, BJP leader L.K. Advani was the first senior Indian minister to visit Israel since the 1992 establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. An Indo-Israeli joint working group on terrorism was formed that year, and in 2003, then national security advisor Brajesh Mishra delivered a speech at the American Jewish Committee underlining the potential for cooperation among India, Israel and the United States in fighting Islamist extremism.