Modi’s Policy towards Israel: The Way Forward
Since the Modi Government came to power in May 2014, India has taken concerted efforts to infuse a new momentum in India-Israel relations. The visit of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Israel on January 17-18, 2016 was one such attempt in this direction. During her visit, Mrs. Swaraj held a detailed discussion with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a wide range of issues and stressed that “India attaches the highest importance to the full development of bilateral ties with Israel.” The two leaders expressed their commitment to strengthen the bilateral ties.
Historically, relations between India and Israel have been estranged and cold, despite the fact that New Delhi recongised Israel as an independent country on September 17, 1950. Yet, it was only in 1992 the Narsimha Rao Government established full diplomatic relations with Israel. During the Vajpayee Government, relations between India and Israel improved significantly. Consequently, over these years India and Israel have deepened and expanded their ties in a number of areas including science and technology, counter-terrorism, space exploration and others. And, since 1992, trade between the two countries has risen from $200 million to over $5 billion in 2014-15 and Israel has become India’s second largest defence supplier.
During its tenure in the government, the UPA while publicly acknowledging its support to the Palestinian Authority, nevertheless engaged with Israel privately; probably due to the fear of losing the support of the Muslim minority community. Thus, there was no political interaction between the two countries at all, except External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s visit to Israel in 2012. It was this attitude of the UPA towards Israel which led C. Raja Mohan to say that, “the UPA government deepened India’s engagement with Israel in private but was not willing to be seen with its leaders in public”.
When Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister, the Indian Government decided to give up its unwillingness of publically acknowledging Israel as its trusted friend. This soon became evident when Prime Minister met his Israeli counterpart Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2014. The meeting prompted Mr. Netanyahu to say that “the sky is the limit”, as far as India-Israel relations are concerned. Subsequently, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Israel in November 2014, followed by the visit of Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon to India in February 2015. Mr. Moshe Ya’alon termed the new phase of engagement between the two countries as “out of closet”.
Close on the heels of these political engagements, on July 3, 2015 India decided to abstain from voting on a UN Human Right Council (UNHRC) resolution condemning Israel for its “alleged war crimes” during the 2014 Gaza conflict. It was the first time when India took such a step on the Israel issue at an international forum. Though the Indian Government defended its decision to abstain, saying it is not a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC), what became clear from India’s act was fact that the Modi government appears determined to bring out India-Israel relations from the shadow of the Arab-Israel conflict. Sections of Indian strategists and diplomats supported this move of the Modi government. In October 2015, Pranab Mukherjee became the first Indian President to visit Israel. The visit finally put an end to the apprehensions that India was not yet ready to engage Israel at the highest political level. In fact, given the non-political position of the Indian President, Mr. Mukherjee’s visit sent a clear message that there was unanimity across the Indian political class about deepening ties between India and Israel. It has been reported that the Modi Government has purchased weapons and defence equipments worth almost $700 million since coming to power. In particular, India has decided to purchase from Israel 262 Barak-I air defence missiles worth of 8.8 million and 8,356 Spike anti-tank guided missiles and 321 launchers.
The transformational shift in India’s policy towards Israel under the current government has not taken place because of affection towards Israel, in fact, there are a number of substantive reasons for the Modi government to seek close diplomatic ties which sees Israel playing a crucial role in its endeavour of modernising its military and replacing aged Russian defence hardware, given the latter’s expertise in the field of defence manufacturing. Second, given the fact that Israel had reportedly made huge investments in Gujarat during the Chief Minstership of Modi to help the state in sustaining a good economic growth rate well above the national average, New Delhi now strongly feels that Tel Aviv’s active participation through the “Make in India” programme would certainly help in improving India’s economic growth and provide jobs to many in the country. True to expectation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown the interest in cooperating with the Modi government in its economic and developmental initiative. Third, another reason for PM Modi to engage Israel is the China factor. Over the last few years, Israel is said to be China’s major defence supplier.
This, in turn, has increased India’s security concerns, especially in view of Beijing asserting its claim on some parts of the Indian territory. In addition, based upon the past exercises, there are also apprehensions in the Indian strategic circle that Israel military hardware and weapons sold to China can easily find a way to Pakistan on account of the nexus between Islamabad and Beijing. Fourth, the recent overtures of Russia towards forging defence cooperation with Pakistan has also emerged as a big security concern for India. Thus, to ensure its military superiority in South Asia, it is being seen very necessary for India to get access to sophisticated military weapons of Israel. Fifth, the political and security turmoil in the region has also helped India in softly expanding ties with Israel without attracting much criticism from the Arab states.
Lastly, despite India’s pro-Arab approach in its policy towards the Middle East, they have never taken any efforts towards addressing India’s concerns on the Kashmir issue. Instead, in the past, these countries have used the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) as a tool to support Pakistan and its-supported terrorism in Kashmir. For its part, Israel has good economic prospects in strengthening ties with India in view of the fact that New Delhi is expected to spend $150 billion to modernise its military by 2027. Israel needs India’s support on the Palestine issue, as well. The nuclear deal between the US and Iran, along with Russia’s support to Hezbollah and the Assad regime has further required Israel to forge close ties with India.
Deepening ties with Tel Aviv does not mean that the Modi government is not aware of the importance of the Arab states or there is a shift in India’s stand on the Palestine issue. It is indeed not possible for the Indian government to neglect the Arab states in view of the fact that about three million Indians work there and one fourth of India’s oil comes from this region. Thus, soon after its decision to abstain on the UNHRC resolution regarding Israel, the Indian government made it clear that India continues to support the Palestine cause. Having realised that the key players of West Asia were upset with India’s overture towards Israel, Prime Minister Modi travelled to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. When President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel, he also went to Palestine. On July 10, 2015, India also signed a BRICS declaration in Ufa, Russia, rejecting “the continuous Israeli settlement activities in the Occupied Territories, which violate international law and seriously undermine peace efforts and threaten the concept of the two-state solution”. Palestine was also a part of the two-day visit of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and she reiterated India’s support to the Palestine cause.
It is, therefore, clear that the Modi Government is focused on maintaining a balance between India-Israel relations and the Arab-Israel conflict. At the same time, the prospect of relationship between the two countries looks very promising in view of the convergence of interests between New Delhi and Tel Aviv. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit India later this year, it may be hoped that the visit would prove to be a watershed development in adding a new chapter in the transforming bilateral ties.
 “India Attaches Top Priority to Israel: Swaraj”, The Hindu, January 16, 2016.
 Joseph Puder, “India: Israel’s Promising New Friend”, Front Page Mag, October 19, 2015, Available on http://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/260479/india-israels-promising-new-friend-joseph-puder.
 C. Raja Mohan, “Re-imaging the Middle- East”, Indian Express, January 19, 2016, Available on http://www.newsjs.com/url.php?p=http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/raja-mandala-re-imagining-the-middle-east/
 Suhasini Haidar, “India Abstains from UNHRC Vote against Israel”, The Hindu, July 3, 2015.
 N.C Bipindra and Natalie Obiko Pearson, “Modi Revives India-Israel Ties as Terrorism Threat Grows”, Bloomberg Technology, November 20, 2014, Available on http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-11-19/modi-revives-india-s-ties-with-israel-as-terrorism-threat-grows.