India’s deepening love affair with Israel

Under Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, the strategic, military, and ideological ties between Israel and India are growing stronger.

Modi hugs Netanyahu
Then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an official welcoming ceremony upon his arrival in Israel at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel July 4, 2017 [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

The revelation that Pegasus – spyware developed by the Israeli cyber-arms company NSO – was used to surveil opposition politicians, activists, public officials and journalists in India, has once again confirmed that the right to privacy, freedom of speech and expression and freedom of the press are threatened under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.

Dismissing the controversy, a member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Basavaraj Somappa Bommai, declared, “It is a conspiracy involving foreign press where these kinds of misinformation campaigns have been done against India … Using digital platforms, they try to destabilise different countries. Now, the eyes are set on India.”

However, opposition politicians have accused Prime Minister Modi of “treason”. And, the Press Club of India (PCI) described this as an unprecedented attack on the Indian democracy. The PCI tweeted, “This is the first time in the history of this country that all pillars of our democracy – judiciary, parliamentarians, media, executives and ministers – have been spied upon.”

But it is not mere happenstance that technology developed by an Israeli company was used by the Hindu nationalist leadership in India. Over the years, the two countries have developed a robust strategic, military and technology partnership. Furthermore, there has long been an ideological alliance between the BJP and Israel that helps further the ambitions of both parties.

History of a fraught relationship

Relations between Israel and India have not always been as friendly as they are today. In 1938, Mahatma Gandhi had famously said, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.”

Jawaharlal Nehru – who eventually became the first prime minister of independent India – expressed his sympathies for the Jewish population facing persecution in Europe. However, Nehru also insisted that “fundamentally the problem of Palestine is a nationalist one. The Arabs are struggling against imperialist control and domination. It is a pity, therefore, that the Jews of Palestine instead of aligning themselves with this struggle have thought it fit to take the side of British imperialism and to seek its protection against the inhabitants of the country.”

India remained invested in the idea of Arab freedom in Palestine in the lead up to its independence in August 1947 and thereafter. It was an elected member of the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). And, in September 1947, it was one of only 13 countries that voted against the United Nations’ Partition Plan for Palestine.

In a statement against the partition plan, the Indian representative and member of UNSCOP, Sir Abdur Rahman, said, “The people of Palestine have now admittedly reached a stage of development where their recognition as an independent nation can no longer be delayed. They are in no way less advanced than the people of the other free and independent Asiatic countries.” Rahman added that the failure to grant independence to Palestinians would lead to continued violence in the region.

As Israel secured UN membership, signed armistice agreements with its neighbours and was recognised as a sovereign state by the leading powers, India also eventually felt compelled to recognise Israel in 1950. However, India’s leanings towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War and status as a key architect of the Non-Alignment Movement meant that its allegiance was with its Arab allies and it had very limited, if any, diplomatic relations with the Western bloc-allied Israel at the time.

In 1956, during the Suez Crisis, India extended its support to Egypt and Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1974, it became the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In 1975, the government of India also allowed the PLO to open an office in New Delhi as confirmation of its continued support to the Palestinian “struggle for the restoration of their inalienable rights in their homeland”. India recognised the State of Palestine in 1988 and it opened the doors of its first representative office in Palestine in 1996.

However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, India engaged in a process of economic liberalisation and, with it, began to reposition itself in world politics. This included its relationship with Israel. In 1992, under the leadership of Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, India established formal diplomatic ties with Israel, but remained committed to the Palestinian cause and its economically crucial ties with other countries in the Middle East.

Material and ideological partnership

Today, bilateral relations between India and Israel is a multifaceted affair. Between April 2020 and February 2021, bilateral merchandise trade (excluding defence) stood at $4.14bn. Indian software companies have a growing presence in Israel. Both countries signed a comprehensive cooperation agreement for the agriculture sector in 2006. The fifth phase of this agreement is currently being implemented. India and Israel also signed a Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement in 1993. And, in 2017, a $40m India-Israel Industrial R&D and Innovation Fund (i4F) was established. Eleven ongoing projects have been funded under i4F.

In December 2020, the two countries signed an agreement to increase cooperation in the fields of healthcare and medicine. At the height of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Indian and Israeli authorities have also worked together to develop a rapid COVID-19 testing kit. In March 2021, it was announced that India’s Premas Biotech and Israel’s Oramed had jointly developed a COVID-19 oral vaccine. In recent years, there has also been an uptick in cultural exchange, tourism and people-to-people contact.

During his visit to India in 2018, the then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted an event titled “Shalom Bollywood” in Mumbai that was attended by some of the most prominent figures in the Hindi film industry. A year later, Netflix released Drive, the first Bollywood movie filmed in Israel.

Security and defence cooperation, however, has always been and still is the cornerstone of bilateral relations.

Three decades before the establishment of formal diplomatic ties, Israel had supplied weapons to India during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. India also used Israeli weapons in the Indo-Pakistan Wars of 1965 and 1971. And, when India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), was established in 1968, its first spy chief RN Kao was tasked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to establish ties with Israel’s Mossad.

Israel has also emerged as India’s most reliable weapons supplier that is willing to maintain supply channels without any political preconditions. This was evident during the Kargil War of 1999. At the time, India was still facing economic sanctions and an export ban on weapons and military technology imposed by the Clinton administration as retribution for its Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998. Yet, Israel refrained from criticising India’s nuclear programme and supplied weapons and surveillance systems and upgraded existing military hardware during the war.

As a result, today India is the largest buyer of Israeli weapons. Israel is India’s second-largest weapons supplier. Imports increased by 175 percent between 2015 and 2019 and current annual sales amount to more than $1bn. India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) are currently collaborating on developing surface-to-air missile systems for the Indian armed forces.

The Indian armed forces have also inducted Israeli UAVs, radar systems, surveillance technology as well as anti-aircraft missiles and air-to-air missiles. Numerous Indian police officers, including many stationed in Indian-administered Kashmir, have been trained at the Israel National Police Academy. Security forces in the Kashmir Valley also use Israeli surveillance technology and foliage-penetrating radar. In 2018, Indian Union Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated two smart fence projects along the border with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir that will use Israeli surveillance technology. India and Israel are also part of a Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism that serves as a platform for dialogue and knowledge exchange on regional and global terrorism threat perception, the prevention of the transfer of weapons to violent groups, and counterinsurgency strategies.

But despite the breadth of the bilateral relations between the two countries, India has walked a diplomatic tightrope for years. It has tried to present its strategic and defence partnership with Israel as a low-key affair and a matter of realpolitik. At the same time, by being vocally pro-Palestine in its political stance and by maintaining a pro-Palestine voting record at the UN, India has sought to maintain its ties with Arab states, especially the oil-rich Gulf states that are critical to its energy security and an important source of foreign investment.

A significant shift in the public perception of Israel in India was seen in 2008 after the Mumbai attacks when experts began to suggest that the country should adopt an Israeli approach to fighting terrorism. However, support for Israel has been the official policy of the BJP long before the Mumbai attacks. During BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s stint as prime minister between 1998 and 2004, India strengthened its ties with Israel significantly. In 2000, then Minister of Home Affairs LK Advani became the first Indian minister to visit Israel. A year later,  BJP’s Jaswant Singh became the first Indian foreign minister to visit Israel. And, in 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit India.

Modi and former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu also shared a very public camaraderie until the latter was voted out of office in 2021.

And their relationship became a symbol of the marked transformation of India-Israel bilateral relations from a matter of realpolitik to an ideological alliance between two countries – each led by a right-wing, nationalist leadership – that see themselves at the forefront of a supposed global, political and military struggle against “Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism”.

The Bibi-Modi “bromance”, and BJP’s decades-long vocal support for Israel, began paying dividends not long after the BJP won the 2014 general elections. In 2015, India was one of the only five countries that abstained from a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council that endorsed a report on Israeli war crimes during Operation Protective Edge. In 2017, Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. As a clear indication of changing allegiances, he chose not to visit the Palestinian Authority at the time.

Welcoming Modi to Israel, Netanyahu said, ““Aapka swagat hai mere dost [Welcome, my friend]. We love India. We admire your culture, history, democracy and commitment to progress. I am confident of the real mathematics of life, of success of our partnership for many reasons; talent of our people.” Celebrating the warming of diplomatic ties, Modi tweeted, “I for I. Which means India for Israel and Israel for India.”

Of course, Modi’s enthusiasm is a reflection of the strong support Israel has historically enjoyed among Hindu nationalists in India. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966) – often credited for having developed the Hindutva ideology – wrote in the 1920s, “If the Zionists’ dreams are ever realised – if Palestine becomes a Jewish state – it will gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends.”

It was the prominent leader of the paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Bhaurao Deoras who convinced, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. Current RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has also said India should learn from Israel’s ability to defend itself, despite being “surrounded by adversaries from all sides”. He added, “Unless we stand as united as Israelis are, both people and the politicians, we will regret badly one day.”

For its part, Israel has been consistent in its support for Modi and his policies.

When the Modi leadership enacted the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019, which effectively excludes access to citizenship for Muslims, it faced global criticism. However, the Israeli Consul General for South India Dana Kursh said, “India as a sovereign nation has the right to enact the CAA. It is not for the European Parliament to decide what India should or not do. India’s sovereignty is to be respected and she knows how to protect her people.”

In 2017, senior Israeli authorities had declared that Israel would never “support Pakistan on the Kashmir issue”. On January 26, 2021 – the anniversary of the Indian Republic – Netanyahu ignored the ongoing farmers’ protests against India’s controversial farm bills. Instead, he tweeted: “To my great friend Prime Minister @NarendraModi. Congratulations to you and the people of India on your 72nd #Republic Day. Our friendship grows from year to year”. On the occasion of Republic Day, a member of the Knesset and Netanyahu’s Likud party, Yariv Levin, also lauded “India’s strong commitment to the ideals of rights and values of the constitution”.

India-Israel ties can only get stronger

In a tweet on May 16, Netanyahu thanked 25 countries for “standing with Israel” during its bombardment of the Gaza Strip. India was missing from this list since it had not made an official statement expressing its support for Israel during “Operation Guardian of the Walls”.

Netanyahu’s snub sent Hindu nationalists on Twitter into a frenzy. One user wrote, “What the hell man, you forgot to add India???? We have always stood in solidarity as a strong ally of Israel.” Another user wrote, “We Indians with you sir, please mention our flag & also mention Hindu nationalist of India who support Israel all time, all weather.”

Despite this episode, relations between India and Israel remain on secure ground. In 2020, Israel signed normalisation agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Morocco, Oman and Bahrain. But these agreements do not just symbolise a marked shift in regional politics. They also break the stigma of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. And, for India, the changing political landscape in the Middle East provides fertile ground for further strengthening its ties with Israel without fear of jeopardising its relations with its other allies in the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.