The changing contours of India—Israel relations

We can deftly steer the technical co-operation between the two countries into a substantial partnership

By Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

This is the gist of the points made by Pranay in a panel discussion on CNBC Awaaz at 6:00pm IST on 5th June. This was in the context of the upcoming visit by Narendra Modi to Israel — the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister.

Q: From a foreign policy angle, how to you view the upcoming visit of Narendra Modi, the first ever by an Indian PM, to Israel?

In the years immediately following India’s independence and Israel’s formation, the India-Israel relationship was completely subservient to India’s relations vis-a-vis the other West Asian countries. Consequently, India recognised Israel in 1950 and yet deferred the establishment of diplomatic ties until 1992.

This policy changed in 1992 for a multitude of reasons, chief among them being Israel’s role as a supplier of arms in the wake of a weakening USSR, and its role as a conduit for economic and trade opportunities with the US. Thereafter, the India-Israel relationship has taken the shape of a technical co-operation rather than a strategic partnership.

This visit, the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel, provides an opportunity to go beyond the realms of technical co-operation, and deepen the engagement between the two countries.

Q: Is it necessary for India to still play a balancing act between Israel and other West Asian countries or can it go all out without worrying about the reactions of the other West Asian countries?

It is important for India to diversify relations with its foreign policy partners, and in this case it means going beyond the co-operation in defence and agriculture. But this does not mean that India can ignore the other West Asian countries. While India has consistently voted for the people of Palestine at forums like the UN, it has also managed to consolidate its relationship with Israel. Such a balancing act is likely to continue.

Moreover, there is another interesting dimension to this relationship. Government of India preferred not to go ballistic with its Israel partnership. But this only meant that several Indian States took the lead in engaging with Israel, beyond the glare of the national media. The period after 1992 has seen several visits by Indian CMs to Israel. On one such occasion in 1996, Maharashtra Diwas in Israel was celebrated in the presence of the then Maharashtra CM (There is a community of Bene Israelis who immigrated to Israel from India’s west coast). Going ahead, this direct partnership between Indian states and Israel is likely to continue as Indian states will become important players, even in matters of India’s foreign policy.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas