Volume 13, No. 4 - December 2009, Total Circulation 25,000
Article 7 of 7



This article examines the dynamics of Indo-Israeli relations in the post-Cold War period. What is most surprising is the considerable extent to which Indo-Israeli relations have advanced since the normalization of relations in 1992, in stark contrast with the coolness from the Indian side during the entire Cold War period. Though Indo-Israeli ties still remain constrained by several factors, India and Israel have forged such close ties that some scholars refer to the two states as strategic partners. This article, however, will attempt to demonstrate that the Indo-Israeli relationship does not in fact form a "strategic partnership." 

The Republic of India and the State of Israel, both territories formerly administered by Great Britain, were established less than a year apart (India in August 1947 and Israel in May 1948). From the beginning, relations between the two new states proved rather arduous. Since the 1920s, the leaders of the Indian liberation movement Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru had fervently opposed the partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state on this territory. On November 29, 1947, India's representative to the UN General Assembly had voted against the partition resolution. While the State of Israel proclaimed its independence in May 1948, it was only two years later, in September 1950, that India officially recognized the Jewish State. Even then, the two states did not establish full diplomatic relations. In 1952, India reluctantly permitted the opening of an Israeli consulate in Bombay and maintained a fairly hostile posture toward the Jewish state in the following decades.

A confluence of ideological, strategic, and political factors--both international and domestic--impeded the relationship between India and Israel. While the Indian rejection of the partition of Palestine and the anti-Western, anti-imperialist worldview of Indian leaders certainly played a role in the country’s stance toward Israel during the entire period of the Cold War, India's strategic interests and political constraints--in particular those related to India’s close links with the Arab and Muslim world and to India’s Muslim domestic population-- contributed to India’s anti-Israeli stance. Despite occasional cooperation between Indian and Israeli authorities--especially the military and security establishments--it took India nearly 40 years to change its stance toward the Jewish state. On January 29, 1992, Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao officially normalized relations with Israel.

This article examines the dynamics of Indo-Israeli relations since normalization. First discussed are the three main areas of bilateral cooperation
--diplomatic and political, military, and economic-- followed by the main constraints hindering the advancement of these ties in each area of cooperation. Last, the nature of the Indo-Israeli relationship is discussed, with particular focus on the question of whether the Indo-Israeli relationship forms a “strategic partnership.”




Diplomatic and Political Cooperation

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been significant progress in Indo-Israeli relations on the diplomatic and political level. In the early 1990s, several major shifts in the international system as well as changes on the regional and domestic levels decreased the impact of the constraints that had hindered relations between India and Israel throughout the Cold War and created favorable conditions for the rapprochement and normalization of relations between the two states. India’s fear of alienating Arab and Muslim states if it forged ties with Israel diminished when it saw those states soften their attitudes toward Israel with the opening of the peace process. The impact of the Muslim factor on India’s domestic politics decreased on account of the ascension to power in the 1990s of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party with very favorable views towards Israel.

Even more significant were new constraints that made it necessary for India to rethink its foreign policy and favor rapprochement with Israel. First and foremost, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union greatly affected India’s interests. India and the Soviet Union had been close allies for several decades and above all, the Soviet Union was meeting nearly 80 percent of India’s military needs in 1991.
[2] During the early 1990s, it thus became imperative for India to find itself new partners and most importantly, new military suppliers. Improving relations with Israel was therefore an interesting option, especially in the field of defense.

Second and no less important, the majority of India’s political establishment understood in the immediate post-Cold War period that it was imperative for India to build sound relations with the United States, the sole hegemonic power in the changed international system. Indian leaders came to assume that normalization with Israel would facilitate India’s rapprochement with the United States, since they believed that the American Jewish lobby had a major influence on the foreign policy decisions of Washington. Indian Prime Minister Rao, in particular, was convinced that normalization with Israel was necessary to improve India’s standing vis-à-vis the American Jewish community and the U.S. political establishment.

Thus, on January 29, 1992, Prime Minister Rao decided to normalize relations with Israel and to establish full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state

Of the many bilateral visits of officials and agreements signed by India and Israel since 1992 signal the significant improvement of diplomatic and political ties between the two states. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2003 visit to India constituted the first official visit of an Israeli prime minister to India. During his three-day visit, Sharon held talks on a wide range of issues with India’s Prime Minister Vajpayee and other senior Indian officials. In addition, six bilateral agreements were signed as a result of these discussions.
[4] At the conclusion of the visit, the two prime ministers issued the Delhi Statement on Friendship and Cooperation.[5]

Another significant change in relations between India and Israel on the diplomatic and political level since 1992 was the positive shift in India’s attitude with regard to Israel on the Palestine issue. Though its representative in the UN General Assembly continues to vote in favor of most resolutions condemning Israeli policy as in the past, India has ceased to participate along with the Arab states in the active promotion of texts hostile to Israel.


Military Cooperation

Arms sales and defense cooperation formed a prime impetus for improved ties between India and Israel in the early 1990s. Indo-Israeli military ties have considerably expanded since 1992, especially after the BJP’s ascension to power in 1998, and even more so since around 2005. Today, military cooperation continues to form the core of the Indo-Israeli relationship.

Initially, a buyer-supplier relationship was formed between the two countries. India purchased from Israel advanced weapons systems and technologies. In addition to large volume of military sales by Israel to India since 1992, in the early 2000s, under the favorable auspices of India’s BJP-led government, the first joint Indo-Israeli military ventures were formed for the development of specific weapons systems and technologies. It marked a new phase in the military relationship, signaling a greater trust and synergy between the defense establishments of the two states.
[7] Accrued cooperation in intelligence and counterterrorism has also further strengthened bilateral military ties, especially after then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2003 visit to India.

In 2004, there were concerns that the return to power of the Indian National Congress party in India would strain the two states’ defense and security ties. However, Indo-Israeli ties have continued to expand at an even faster pace, and in early 2009, various media outlets reported that Israel had become India’s prime supplier of weapons and military technology.
[8] The reception by India of the first Israeli Phalcon early warning plane in May 2009 was enthusiastic.[9]

Several strategic interests account for the extensive development of Indo-Israeli ties on the military front since normalization.
After having lost the Soviet Union as its primary strategic and military partner, Israel rapidly emerged as an alternate military supplier for India. For Israel’s part, the need for considerable resources to finance the development of new weapons systems and technologies and the country’s limited domestic market
[10] required Israeli defense industries to generate revenues through military product exports.  With its large domestic market and growing defense budget, India is an extremely attractive partner for Israel.

As both India and Israel are eager to improve capabilities to fight against similar challenges and threats,
military cooperation between the two states allows the defense industries to share the expensive development costs of new weapons systems and technologies. Three other major mutual strategic interests that have enhanced defense and security ties include the fight against terrorism and radical Islam, concerns over proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile technology, and the growing interest of the two states for the Indian Ocean.


Economic Cooperation

Though it did not initially form the main impetus for improved ties and still does not constitute the core of the Indo-Israeli relationship, economic cooperation between the two countries has steadily increased between since 1992. In 2008, the total volume of bilateral trade was over $4 billion, and India has become Israel's third largest trading partner in Asia.
[11] Economic ties have also greatly expanded in the fields of agriculture, science, and technology. In the scientific and technological sectors, cooperation has mainly involved joint research and development projects, especially in the fields of telecommunications and software. Since the 1990s, cooperation has also prospered in the space sector, an area of strategic importance for both states. As for agriculture, dozens of joint ventures have been formed by Indian and Israeli companies and research institutes, mainly in irrigation, water management, and crop production.

Though trade has been diversified to a certain extent, the diamond industry is still Israel’s main trade area with India. Yet there is greater potential for cooperation in other trade sectors as well, including agriculture, renewable energies, and industrial research and development.

There are several interests underlying the Indo-Israeli economic relationship. The limited size of the Israeli domestic market is a major constraint on Israel’s economic development. It is imperative for Israeli companies

*Arielle Kandel holds degrees in international law and Middle East studies from the University of Aix-Marseille III and Ben-Gurion University. Her Master’s thesis focuses on Indo-Israeli strategic relations.

MERIA Journal Staff

Publisher and Editor: Prof. Barry Rubin
Assistant Editors: Yeru Aharoni, Anna Melman.
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