Despite a cordial closeted relationship for decades, India and Israel are now making their private affair public — thanks in large part to the unprecedented embrace of the Jewish state by Narendra Modi. Is this stark departure one of style or substance?
Relations between India and Israel are experiencing a diplomatic renaissance. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslidevictory in India’s elections last year has ushered in a new, conspicuously more visible phase of bilateral ties.
Cooperation with Israel—conducted secretly throughout most of India’s history—has now become a public affair. Modi has openly and enthusiastically embraced the Jewish state. Although some wonder whether the change is merely one of style rather than substance, there is no question that India’s recent public displays of affection toward Israel are a stark departure from the past. If current trends continue, the Modi government could become the most pro-Israel government New Delhi has ever seen.
Throughout most of its post-independence history, India benefitted privately from Israel while refusing to publicly acknowledge it. New Delhi voted to recognize Israel in 1950, but Cold War alignments, fear of alienating its large Muslim population, and its need to maintain strong ties to the Arab world over the Kashmir issue resulted in New Delhi adopting an unsympathetic, if not outright hostile, posture toward Israel.
India reflexively supported the Palestinian position, viewing the conflict in zero-sum terms. But this did not stop New Delhi from covertly acceptingcritical intelligence and military assistance from the Jewish state during its wars with China in 1962 and with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it the end of the ideological and geopolitical foundations of India’s longstanding Israel policy. New Delhi sought a more pragmatic and balanced approach to the region. With some help from Washington, India finally established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, the last major non-Arab country to do so. Both countries quickly moved to make up for lost time, pursuing cooperation in a wide array of arenas ranging from security and defense to education and agriculture.
Although it was India’s left-leaning Congress Party that normalized relations with Israel, ties flourished under the country’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Leaders in both countries expressly emphasized the ideological affinity their two nations shared as democracies and longstanding victims of terrorism. The two states embarked on a strategic partnership, with Israel emerging as one of India’s most important military suppliers. Following the Congress Party’s return to power in 2004, however, New Delhi appeared to revert back to past tendencies, preferring cooperation with Israel behind closed doors. Ties were shoved firmly back in the closet.
Ten years later, the outlook appeared very different. Modi had forged a personal connection with Israel long before becoming prime minister. In 2006, he visited Tel Aviv as chief minister of his home state of Gujarat and spoke glowingly about what India could learn from Israel. Modi actively courted Israeli investment and expertise, harnessing them to help achieve Gujarat’s storied economic growth. Notably, Israel extended the invitation to Modi at a time when he was unwelcome in many countries, including the United States, for his purported role in failing to stem communal riots in Gujarat in 2002. Proponents of stronger Indian-Israeli ties hoped that a Modi-led BJP victory would lead to a more public relationship and even-handed approach to the region.
The optimism proved justified. Less than two months after Modi’s election, signs emerged that New Delhi was again recalibrating its posture toward Israel and the Palestinian conflict. Just days after Israel launched its controversial Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip last summer, India’s Foreign Ministry released a statement signaling its alarm over the civilian loss of life, but at the same time also expressed its concern over “cross-border provocations resulting from rocket attacks” targeting Israel. The balanced statement represented a change from past official declarations that had instinctively denounced Israeli actions.
Days later, the Indian government rejected a parliamentary resolution seeking to condemn Israel over the conflict in Gaza. Sponsored by India’s opposition Congress and Communist parties, the proposed resolution sought to denounce Israel over its use of “brute force” in Gaza. The government, led by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, refused to adopt the measure.
The personal chemistry between Prime Ministers Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu has also given India-Israel ties a powerful boost. Netanyahu was amongst the first world leaders to congratulate Modi last year following his landslide victory at the polls. In September, the two premiers met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly where Netanyahu declared that the “sky is the limit” with India. Later that year, Modi sent Hanukah greetings over Twitter in Hebrew, delighting members of the Jewish community around the world. In March, Modi again tweeted in Hebrew to congratulate his “friend Bibi” on his re-election.
High-level exchanges between Indian and Israeli leaders quickly resumed. The outreach went beyond official meetings. Last September, Modi met with the American Jewish Committee just hours before his celebrated address to the Indian-American diaspora at Madison Square Garden. In less than a year, Modi had rekindled the romance between India and Israel.
But does India’s unprecedented public embrace of the Jewish state represent a shift in policy or just in optics?
India-Israel ties have undoubtedly assumed a more public dimension since Modi’s election, but a question persists whether there has been a more significant change in India’s foreign policy toward Israel. Although conducted outside the public eye under the previous government, cooperation continued unabated. In 2008, for example, India launched an Israeli spy satellite, capable of surveilling Iran’s nuclear sites. Even after rejecting the proposed parliamentary resolution condemning Israel last June, Swaraj emphasized that the BJP’s Israel policy was unchanged.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the new government has begun to fundamentally alter the trajectory of its Israel policy or whether the change is more cosmetic. At a minimum, it is clear that Modi is keen on expanding the political relationship. Many are hoping he will become the first Indian prime minister to travel to Israel. The visit would represent an unprecedented milestone and propel the relationship to even greater heights.
By bringing India-Israel ties out of the closet, Modi has brought focus, direction, and substance to the relationship. How long ties will remain in the public spotlight will largely depend on the results of the next Indian election still four years away. But regardless of the outcome, it is safe to conclude no government in New Delhi has ever been as enthusiastic about its affection for Israel as the one in power now.