Many observers have qualified prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel as historic, with the potential to elevate the bilateral relationship to “new heights”. The visit is symbolically overdue, as Modi will be the first Indian prime minister to travel to Israel 25 years after the two countries established diplomatic relations, and 14 years after Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to New Delhi.
One could also argue that the efforts towards diversification of ties beyond defence exchanges and improve bilateral trade figures would be welcome developments in the maturing of this bilateral relationship.
It is a particularly difficult exercise to evaluate the state of India-Israel ties given the unique historical nature and evolution of this relationship. From Nehru to Modi, India has cautiously balanced its policy towards various actors and coalitions in West Asia, at the expense of normalizing its ties with Israel. Given this historical legacy, it is not clear whether the current Modi government itself has a clear idea of where it wants to take this relationship.
As chief minister, Modi had regularly expressed his admiration of Israel’s military, agricultural and technological achievements, notably during a visit to Tel Aviv in 2006. For decades, the BJP also promoted a political rapprochement with Israel. In a first symbolic move, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government welcomed Sharon to New Delhi in 2003.
Initially, Modi showed an interest in upgrading the relationship by regularly meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, prematurely announcing his visit to Israel in June 2015, and encouraging a gradual revision of India’s consistent support for Palestine in multilateral organizations. However, after originally signaling this pro-Israel shift, Modi embarked on a course correction by mid-2015 and effectively resumed the policy of multi-engagement of all relevant West Asian actors. Before traveling to Israel, Modi has visited the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran. In anticipation of the Israel visit, Modi also hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in May 2017 and reasserted India’s traditional support for an independent Palestinian nation “at peace with Israel”. These various developments show that the Modi government’s policy towards West Asia has yet to be coherently formulated.
As a result, can we expect any substantial shift in India’s position this coming week? The current transactional partnership which has emerged over the last decade holds at least four advantages. First of all, it benefits both India and Israel, especially in the defense sector. India is Israel’s biggest arms market, with an average of $1 billion of defense sales per year. Israel has become one of India’s most important weapons suppliers, after Russia and the US.
Second, unlike in the recent past, trade and defence ties have developed in isolation from the fluctuation of political events, whether these were regional crises (for instance, in Gaza) or domestic political transitions (across the Congress and BJP). Third, present ties have attracted limited uproar from regional Arab allies.
Finally, the current nature of the partnership means that chief ministers and their state governments can directly seek collaborations and investments in agricultural and water technologies from Israel.