India-Israel Relations: Evolution, Challenges & Recent Developments

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India, for a long time, had significantly profited from its close ties with Israel and little was done to acknowledge it. However, after the 2017 visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there is a significant breakthrough in the relationship, enhancing the scope of the ties. Subsequently, India has made significant steps in forging a precarious, yet necessary balance in the Middle East, ensuring that the economic and security interests are not threatened.

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History of India-Israel ties:

  • Though India and Israel have many common traits, it took nearly four decades to set up an official diplomatic relationship.
  • Both nations became independent almost at the same time, in the late 1940s, following a long struggle against the British Colonialism.
  • They both follow the democratic form of governance in a neighbourhood where democracy is either frail or non-existent.
  • Like India, Israel also has a rich ancient history, going back many millennia.
  • The obvious difference between the two nations is the size of the territory and the population. Israel’s geographical size is 20,770 to 22,072 km2, smaller than India’s 3,287,263 km2.
  • Israel’s population is approximately nine million, while India is home to about 1,400,000.
  • Demographically, both the nations have a vast majority of a Muslim minority that makes up 15-20% of the total population.
  • For India, this is one of the major obstacles that hindered the establishment of diplomatic ties.
  • India announced its recognition of Israel on September 17th, 1950, following which the Jewish Agency established an immigration office in Bombay. This later became a Trade Office and subsequently a Consulate.
  • The diplomatic relationship between India and Israel was previously based on popular consensus and only much later became official.
  • Israelis, particularly the youth, were attracted by the India culture and history, leading to the initiation of liaison.
  • The Israelis visited India, resulting in the budding of the people-to-people ties. This formed a significant base for the establishment of the formal diplomatic relationship in 1992.
  • However, while Israel had tried to forge close ties with India, the latter was reluctant to respond in kind.
  • This was because during that time India was a young state that needed to take into account Arab states’ numerical impact at the United Nations.
  • Furthermore, it could not afford to antagonise its Muslim population by establishing ties with a Jewish state. Sympathising the Palestinian cause is a by-product of these motives.
  • In 1961, India is one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement along with President Nasser of Egypt. This significantly complicated India’s ties with the Jewish state.
  • Another hurdle that prevented the bilateral ties was India’s close ties with the Soviet Union while Israel inclined towards the US.
  • However, since 1992, many of these impediments ceased to exist.
  • Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979, breaking a huge anti-Israeli mindset among the Indians.
  • Another significant breakthrough in this regard is the Madrid Conference that was held in 1991. This conference aimed to revive the Israeli-Palestine peace process through negotiations involving the Arab nations and Israel.
  • Other similar developments include the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accord and the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Agreement.
  • These peace negotiations helped India form close ties with Israel.
  • Other events that led to the improvement of bilateral ties include the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and liberalisation of the Indian economy.
  • Once these barriers were removed, the bilateral ties have exponentially improved at a rapid pace, becoming a strategic asset for both the nations.

What are the areas of cooperation?

Political Cooperation:

  • Since the up-gradation of relations in 1992, defence and agriculture have become the two main pillars of the bilateral engagement.
  • The political ties have become especially cordial under the Modi Government.
  • In 2017, Prime Minister Modi became the first-ever Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel.
  • During this visit, the diplomatic relationship was upgraded to a strategic level and seven agreements/MoUs were signed in the areas of R&D, innovation, water, agriculture and space.
  • In 2018, the Israeli Prime Minister visited India, during which Government to Government (G2G) agreement on cybersecurity, oil and gas cooperation, film cooperation and air transport were signed, along with five other semi-government agreements.
  • An increase in the high-level exchanges in recent times has expanded cooperation in areas like trade, agriculture, science and technology and security.

Economic Cooperation:

  • The bilateral merchandise trade stood at $5.02 billion (excluding defence) in 2016-17.
  • While exports from India were $3.06 billion, the import to India from Israel was $1.96 billion.
  • The diamond trade constitutes more than 53% of the bilateral trade.
  • India is Israel’s third-largest trading partner in Asia after China and Hong Kong.
  • In recent years, bilateral trade has diversified to include several sectors like pharmaceuticals, agriculture, IT and telecom and homeland security.
  • Major exports from India to Israel include precious stones and metals, chemical products, textiles and textile articles etc.
  • Major imports from Israel include chemicals and mineral products, base metals and machinery and transport equipment. Potash is a major item of Israel’s exports to India.

Investment:

  • The major investments from Israel in India include renewable energy, telecom, real estate, water technologies etc., and are also setting up R&D centres or production units in India.
  • The extent of Israel’s investment in India is not available as most of these are routed via third countries such as Singapore, USA
  • Also, India’s investments in Israel are mostly in drip-irrigation, pharmaceuticals, wastewater treatment, IT etc.

Agriculture:

  • Cooperation in the field of agriculture is being prioritised by India.
  • Several India-Israel Centre of excellence for Cooperation in agriculture have been set up in states like Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan etc.
  • India has significantly benefited from Israeli’s expertise and technologies in horticulture, mechanisation, protected cultivation, orchard and canopy management, nursery management, micro-irrigation and post-harvest management, particularly in Haryana and Maharashtra.
  • Currently, Israeli drip-irrigation technologies and products are widely used in India.
  • Furthermore, India is gaining Israel’s expertise in managing and improving dairy farming and high milk yield.

Military and strategic cooperation:

  • India’s arms trade with Israel had reached almost $600 million in 2016, making Israel the second-largest source of defence equipment for India, after Russia.
  • Both nations have enhanced bilateral military and intelligence cooperation since the official establishment of diplomatic relations.
  • Israel was one of the few nations, including France and Russia, that did not condemn India’s 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear tests.
  • Following the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Israel offered a team of about 40 special-operations forces and assistance in the investigation. Paramedics, medics and other professionals from Israel were also sent to aid India.
  • The common aspiration to fight the menace of terrorism led to the enhancement of defence cooperation.
  • In February 2014, India and Israel signed three important agreements on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, Cooperation in Homeland Security and Protection of Classified Material.
  • Four working groups in areas of border management, internal security and public safety, police modernisation and capacity building for combating crime, crime prevention and cybercrime were established.

Science and Technology cooperation:

  • Under a Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement in 1993, Science and Technology institutions undertook joint research.
  • Specific areas of cooperation include IT, biotechnology, lasers and electro-optics.
  • In 2005, India and Israel signed an MoU to set up i4RD fund to encourage bilateral investment into industrial research and development and specific projects. Under the agreement, at least one Indian and one Israeli company must be collaborating on a project for it to be qualified for the fund.
  • In 2012, both nations signed a five-year $50 million academic research agreement for promoting collaborative research in various disciplines, including medical technology, IT, social and welfare sciences, humanities and arts.
  • Israel has also offered to assist with India’s Clean Ganga Mission by providing its expertise in water management to address water scarcity.

Culture:

  • Israelis know India for its culture and tradition, making it an attractive alternative tourist destination.
  • In 2017, Indian tourists became the second largest from an Asian country.
  • In 2011, cultural artists and performers from India participated in a three-week festival commemorating 20 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
  • In 2019, a large-scale summit was organised to boost cultural ties.
  • On February 15, 2020, the first of its kind Jerusalem-Mumbai festival was held in Mumbai to promote artistic and cultural ties between the two nations. This festival aimed to establish a link between the cities of Jerusalem and Mumbai and boost cooperation in the field of music, culinary art and dance.

Education:

  • In recent years, several public and private Indian universities have entered into academic agreements with Israel’s educational institutions.
  • Since 2012, Israel has been offering post-doctoral scholarships to students from India and China in all fields for three years.
  • India too offers scholarships to Israelis every year and an equal number of scholarships are offered by Israel for 10-month programmes in specialised fields of study.
  • In 2014, the Indian diamond community in Israel had set up a fund to finance study tours to India for meritorious Israeli students of Hindi.

Indian diaspora:

  • There are approximately 85,000 Jews of Indian-origin in Israel (at least one Indian parent).
  • The main waves of immigration into Israel from India took place in the 1950s and 1960s mostly from Maharashtra (Bene Israelis) and relatively smaller numbers from Kerala (Cochini Jews) and Kolkata (Baghdadi Jews).
  • In recent years, some Indian Jews from the North Eastern States (Bnei Menashe) have been immigrating to Israel.
  • Out of almost 11,000 Bnei Menashe Jews, only around 4,000 Jews have been able to immigrate to Israel, while about 7,000 of them is said to be waiting for immigration to the Jewish state.
  • Bnei Menashe Jews, post immigration to Israel, have an especially difficult life in the region, being allocated areas of highly unstable lands in West Bank where education, security and employment remain a major challenge. This may be because of their inferior socio-economic and educational status is in contrast to the larger Israeli society.
  • Despite the progress made in the diplomatic relations between India and Israel post-2017 visit by the Indian Prime Minister, little is being done for the welfare of the Indian immigrants in Israel.
  • Despite agreeing to take in the remaining 7,000 Bnei Menashe Jews in India by the Netanyahu government in 2012, still, only about 4,000 Jews were able to enter Israel while the rest are remaining in India.
  • Clearly, discrimination and scepticism are to blame for this delay and oppression.

What is India’s stand on Israel-Palestine Issue?

  • India, for a very long time, had called for the 2-state solution that supports the establishment of a sovereign independent state of Palestine.
  • However, India’s stand on Israel-Palestine conflict has not hindered the growing diplomatic relationship with India and Israel.
  • Yet, the recent close ties with Israel have diluted India’s stance on the issue.
  • In 2014, India favoured a UN resolution that established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate a violation of an international humanitarian and human rights law in the “Occupied Territories” during Operation Protective Edge conducted by Israel in the Gaza Strip.
  • However, the Indian Government did not pass a resolution in the parliament condemning the Israeli action, contrary to the earlier practices.
  • At the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), India abstained on the resolution that welcomed the report of the same Commission of Inquiry, making it the first time India had refused to vote against Israel at the UN.
  • However, the Indian government clarified that this does not mean that there is a change in India’s traditional support for the separate state of Palestine.
  • Nevertheless, from the growing strategic ties, it is evident that India is distancing itself from advocating for the Palestinian cause.

What is the nature of the India-Israel ties?

  • India had often been favourable in maintaining close ties with Israel, though not prepared to acknowledge it in the open.
  • New Delhi voted to recognise Israel in 1950, but Cold War alliances, fear of alienating its large Muslim population, and its need to maintain close ties with the Arab nations for oil, remittance and Kashmir issue led to India adopting a less sympathetic position towards Israel.
  • However, through most of its post-independence history, India has significantly, but privately, benefited from the bilateral ties with Israel, without recognizing it.
  • In recent times, under the Modi regime, the diplomatic relationship went from being clandestine to the one that openly supports closer ties with Israel.
  • Prime Minister Modi’s noteworthy visit to Israel in 2017 did not lead to diplomatic tension with Arab nations, making it a successful turning point.
  • This is of significance as Israel has everything that India needs to be secure, stable and prosperous. This includes technology, innovation, defence equipment, cooperation in counter-terrorism, training in intelligence gathering etc.
  • For Israel, India is an enormous market for its technologies and expertise.
  • Furthermore, India recognising Israel as an independent nation is of significance, since more than 30 UN member nations are still unwilling to recognise it.
  • This diplomatic relationship, despite facing differences, is still stable due to the shared value, interests and democratic principles between the two nations.
  • It is imperative that for the relationship to realise its full potential, both nations must take into account the common economic and security interests while putting aside the differences.

What are the challenges faced by the bilateral relationship?

  • It is difficult to delink Israel and Palestine in India’s foreign policy, making it a significant consideration while strategizing the diplomatic relationship with Israel and other nations in the Middle East.
  • India’s ties with Iran are challenged in the current situation due to its close ties with Israel and the US, making it choose between these nations.
  • Israel’s politics dominated by its antagonistic attitude towards the Palestinians is also making it difficult for India to enhance the diplomatic relationship.
  • Israel’s discrimination towards minorities, especially the Jewish minorities from India is hindering the diplomatic ties.
  • The inflexible stance by the current government in Israel and the US makes it highly difficult for India to manoeuvre and balance its ties with Iran and other nations that are against Israel.

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What can be the way forward?

  • Taking steps to balance the differences between India and Israel is often difficult and complicated.
  • Flexibility in favour of India’s national interest must be made the top priority of the Indian government while dealing with Israel.
  • India has so far been successful in balancing its interests in the Middle East, both bilaterally and multilaterally, without taking sides with neither of the conflicting nations in the region.
  • Maintaining apolitical ties with the Sunni-dominated and Shia-dominated Arab countries and Israel is a step in the right direction.
  • Thus, prioritising the energy and security interest must be ensured while sculpting new policies to address novel challenges that are bound to arise in this region.

Conclusion:

India’s close diplomatic relationship with Israel is vital for India’s national interest. Despite the criticism of India abandoning the Palestinians, in the current juncture, it is necessary to undertake a balancing in the highly unstable West Asia so that there is room for change when the need arises.

Test Yourself:

Critically analyse the nature of diplomatic ties between India and Israel. What are the challenges faced by India while balancing the diplomatic ties in West Asia due to its close relationship with Israel? (250 words)

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