What on earth, one might legitimately wonder, could India have in common with Israel? Wildly at variance in size (India’s population tops 1.25 billion; Israel’s struggles to reach 8 million), they are at least both alumni of Britain’s one-time imperial college, each with somewhat equivocal feelings towards their alma mater, and struggling free of their colonial bonds within a few months of each other in 1947-48. Even so, for a long time the connection between New Delhi and Jerusalem was far from close. It took forty years for India to overcome the fear that close relations with the Jewish State might somehow radicalize its Muslim citizens – who number over 100 million – and hurt its relations with the Arab world.
It was, perhaps, the disintegration in 1991 of the Soviet Union – long a bulwark of the Arab Middle East – that encouraged India to overcome those misgivings. Its main Muslim neighbour on the sub-continent, Pakistan, has never recognized Israel, but India has conducted an on-off armed struggle with Pakistan since its foundation, so any scruples about hurting its feelings probably did not weigh very heavily in India’s consideration. Perhaps both India and Israel saw themselves as isolated democracies threatened by neighbours that train, finance and encourage terrorism. Whatever the rationale, in 1992 India established full diplomatic relations with Israel, and since then economic, social and security collaboration between the two nations has burgeoned, and India has become one of Israel’s largest trading partners.
In 2014 Indo-Israeli bilateral trade, excluding defence, reached $4.52 billion, a 3.8 percent increase on the previous year. But it is defence and security that lie at the heart of the ever-closer ties between India and Israel, with the effective countering of terrorism as the prime objective. Israel has sold radar and surveillance systems for military aircraft and has provided India with training in counter-terrorism. In November 2011, India’s élite Cobra Commando unit bought more than 1,000 Israeli X-95 assault rifles for counter-insurgency operations, and placed orders for four advanced Israeli Phalcon planes equipped with airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Further orders for advanced counter-terrorism military hardware followed, backed by a joint intelligence-sharing agreement between the two nations aimed at fighting radical Islamic extremism.
The blossoming collaboration was endorsed when, for the first time in over a decade, the prime ministers of Israel and India met in September 2014 in New York. Extreme cordiality seems to have marked the encounter between Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi. They met again in November, on the sidelines of the climate change conference in Paris, just as Israel Aerospace Industries successfully tested a jointly developed Indian-Israeli Barak 8 air and naval defence missile system – “an important milestone in the cooperation between India and Israel”, according to a top advisor to India’s defense minister.
All of which both provides the background to, and perhaps explains, the first-ever official visit by an Indian head of state to Israel a year later. In October 2015 President Pranab Mukherjee arrived in Jerusalem, to a rumbling background of media reservations, despite the fact that Mukherjee visited both Jordan and the Palestinian territories ahead of his visit to Israel, and expressed India’s solid support for a “sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognized borders, side by side at peace with Israel as endorsed in the Quartet Roadmap and relevant UNSC Resolutions.”
Hosted by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, Mukherjee, in his own words, “reviewed our multidimensional relations and explored ways and means to enhance them for the mutual benefit of our two countries.”
The fact that mutual benefit is indeed being derived from this ever-closer Indo-Israeli relationship is undisputed. India is one of the world’s two most rapidly developing economies (China is the other), and represents a huge potential market for Israel’s defence, aerospace, and high-tech industries – a market already being exploited, but one with unimaginably vast possibilities still to be explored. “The sky’s the limit”, said Netanyahu recently, referring to the potential for strengthening bilateral Indo-Israel co-operation in a wide variety of fields.
For India, Israel offers access to the most advanced technologies available in the world, across a range of areas – defence, security, computer science, cyber forensics, agricultural techniques, micro-irrigation, urban water systems. In 2013, Israel announced a scheme to help India diversify and raise the yield of its fruit and vegetable crops. By March 2014, 10 Centres of Excellence were operating throughout India, offering free training sessions for farmers in efficient agricultural techniques using Israeli technology and know-how, including vertical farming, drip irrigation and soil solarisation. A year later, no less than 29 such Centres were in operation.
As for the field of defence, in 2015 Israel Aerospace Industries and the Indian state-owned Defense Research and Development Organization began collaborating on a jointly developed surface-to-air missile system for the Indian Army. India uses Israel-made unmanned drones for surveillance and military purposes, and during 2015 ordered 16 drones and well as buying 321 launchers and 8,356 missiles from the Israeli military.
That India’s stance vis-a-vis Israel has shifted became evident when India took to abstaining, rather than vote against Israel in a succession of UN votes. The most notable occasion was in July 2015, when India abstained on the vote to adopt the UN Human Rights Council’s report on Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s action against Hamas’s rocket attacks the previous year. It was the first time in decades that India had abstained from a decision against Israel in an international forum. India has long been a key player in the Non-Aligned Movement – a body of states that would automatically vote for the Palestinians and against Israel.
It may also explain why India’s Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, will be visiting Israel from January 16-19. Swaraj, who served from 2006 to 2009 as chair of the Indo-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group, last came to the country in 2008. Her forthcoming tour may herald an official visit later in 2016 by Indian prime minister Modi – the first by an Indian prime minister, announced back in June 2015, but which has so far failed to materialize. Given the huge and developing level of cooperation between the two nations, Modi’s trip to Israel cannot be long delayed.
Neville Teller is the author of "The Search for Détente; Israel and Palestine 2012-2014" (2014) and writes the blog "A Mid-East Journal". He is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. Born in London and educated at Owen's School and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, he is a past chairman of the Society of Authors' Broadcasting Committee, and of the Contributors' Committee of the Audiobook Publishing Association. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."