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India-Israel: A renewed confluence?

In February this year, Israeli defence minister Moshe Ya’alon visited India—a first since diplomatic ties between the two countries were established more than two decades ago. Ya’alon met Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and offered defence technology for Modi’s Make in India initiative, and they talked about India-Israel defence and security relations.

The visit comes not long after the 2014 election brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to power, with poll results that the Reuters news agency called a “seismic political shift [that reflected] the most resounding election victory India has seen in 30 years.”  [1] With this shift, India’s lingering Congress-era inhibitions in befriending Israel seem to have been cast aside.

Although formal diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1992 under the Congress party’s rule, after a prolonged period of post-Independence antagonism, there is little doubt that the warmth in the relationship between the two nations increased perceptibly only after the BJP came to power in 1998.

It is also true that when the Congress regained power in 2004, the relationship did not deteriorate significantly, as feared. However, it is difficult to deny the Congress party’s reticence in India’s relationship with Israel, formed as it was in the ideological crucible of an anti-colonial, non-aligned doctrine, which saw Israel as tainted with colonialist trimmings.

The present change comes at an opportune time, when the Indian public has, over time, become more amenable to closer bonds with Israel. A global survey in 2009, conducted by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, shows that Israel has a higher level of sympathy in India than in any other country polled—higher even than in the U.S. [2] According to a well-paced Israeli diplomat, “Rural Indians see Israel as an agricultural superpower” while “urban India sees Israel as a leader of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Beyond a transitory confluence

Despite the historical antagonism and implicit reticence, an increasingly close and multi-faceted relationship has developed between the two very different, yet similar countries,  that can now be taken forward, especially in the strategic domain.

In the 1990s, I first wrote on the strategic significance of the India-Israeli relationship in a policy paper titled Indo-Israeli Strategic Co-operation as an US national interest, co-authored with the late academic and diplomat M. L. Sondhi.

To the best of my knowledge, this was the first work involving an Israeli academic that identified the strategic potential in a partnership between the two democracies that straddle a vast swathe of Western Asia that includes assorted tyrannies—from military dictatorships to nepotistic monarchies and despotic theocracies.

We pointed to the remarkable resilience of the democracies in both countries: “…the political milieu of both India and Israel is one that might have been expected to be highly conducive to the growth of dictatorship. Both countries have had to contend with threats to national security, periods of economic hardship, political assassination and ethno-religious rivalries. The fact that authoritarianism has not taken root in either country bears eloquent testimony to the deep-rooted commitment of both to the principles of liberty, pluralism and the right of dissent.[3]

Although considerable time has passed since then, and a lot has been written on the remarkable development of a perhaps unlikely bond between the two countries—one a sliver of land on the eastern flank of the Mediterranean Sea, the other a gigantic land mass in South Asia—a lot of what my co-author and I wrote remains valid today, perhaps even more so.

We characterised the affinity between the two countries not as a narrow and transient “perception of common interests” but as a much broader and more enduring “common perception of interest”—in other words, not a transitory confluence of prevailing goals but a long-term common understanding of what national goals should be.

The difference is profound and significant, and likely to become more so especially in light of the emerging global changes in the international system—perhaps particularly in  the shifting balance of global economic power and the changes in the U.S.-Israel relationship, reflected in the recent tensions between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government over Iran and the Palestinian issue.

Potential areas of cooperation

Now, with both India and Israel making renewed bilateral overtures, the potential for cooperation between the two countries is almost limitless—from nanotechnology to mega infrastructure projects. However, a few spheres, as discussed below, can be singled out as likely to be of particular interest:

Intelligence and counter intelligence collaboration:  The Modi government’s resolute approach to the threat of radical Islamism is likely to converge with that of the Israeli security establishment. Like-minded perceptions regarding common threats will, in all probability, lead to enhanced collaboration in intelligence and counter intelligence activities, especially in the collection and sharing of information; it might even extend to operational levels.

Naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean: As India’s international stature has grown over recent decades, so has the importance of its navy. The Indian Ocean, long of paramount importance to New Delhi, has become increasingly strategically significant for Israel too. It is important not only for maintaining the security of trade routes to Israel’s expanding markets in Asia, but with the heightened threat from Iran, it is also becoming an important location for Israeli naval operations—not least amongst these is the country’s submarine-borne second-strike capability. Both India and Israel have clear common interests here in preserving the security of navigation and developing logistics support for both surface and sub-surface vessels.

Developing rural India: Prime Minister Modi has demonstrated his awareness of the crucial importance of the rural sector by declaring immediately after the election that he will assign top priority to this issue. More than in any other field, this is perhaps where Israel can make a dramatic contribution, not only to enhancing the performance of Indian agriculture, but also by helping to  create non-farming employment in sectors such as rural tourism, medicine, and cottage industries.

Sidestepping EU sanctions: For Israel, the development of economic ties with Asian powers in general, and India in particular, has a strategic significance that goes well beyond commercial profit. Given the spectre of economic sanctions, particularly by the EU, the Indian market, with the growing purchasing power and consumption of the middle class, can offer huge opportunities for Israeli enterprises.

Based on these projections, there is certainly much room for optimism.

Dr. Martin Sherman, Executive Director and founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, in Israel

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[1] Singh, Rajesh Kumar, and Aditi Shah. Pro-business Modi Storms to Historic Election Win, Reuters, 16 May 2014 http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/05/16/india-election-counting-result-modi-idINKBN0DV1XX20140516

[2] Eichner, Itamar, From India with Love, Ynet,4 March, 2009, <http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3696887,00.html>

[3] Sherman, Martin, and M.S. Londhi, Indo-Israeli Strategic Cooperation as a US National Interest, Ariel Center for Policy Research,  1999, <http://www.acpr.org.il/publications/policy-papers/pp089-xs.html>