Analysis: Taking India-Israel ties out of the closet

Executive Editor of 'India Today': Prime Minister Modi will make history by becoming the first Indian PM to visit Israel. This is his chance to take their ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ ties to the next level

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech during a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia, June 2, 2017.  (photo credit: REUTERS/VALERY SHARIFULIN/TASS/HOST PHOTO AGENCY/POOL)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech during a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia, June 2, 2017.
On a road trip across Israel in late 2014 a young Israeli diplomat accompanying Indian journalists, pointed to a portmanteau of two highway signs for two cities ‘Modi’in’ and ‘Jerusalem’. “Very soon” he said. His optimism will be belied on July 4 this year, when Prime Minister Modi becomes the first Indian PM to visit the Jewish nation.
“Unlike past Prime Ministers, Modi has no inhibitions on openly expressing his admiration for Israel's achievements,” says G Parthasarathy, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan. “Others have fought shy because of domestic vote bank considerations.”
Prime Minister Modi’s July 4-6 visit comes even as he carries out a delicate balancing act in West Asia by simultaneously improving relations with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Iran and Israel. India remains one of the handful of major nations who have excellent ties with these countries.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu hailed ‘my friend Narendra Modi’s’ upcoming visit’ as ‘historic’. “In the 70 years of this country’s existence no India Prime Minister has visited and this is a further expression of the State of Israel’s military, economic and diplomatic strength.”
Prime Minister Modi’s visit might appear largely symbolic coming as it does soon after a spate of recent high-profile visits between New Delhi and Tel Aviv. President Pranab Mukherjee became the first Indian head of state to visit Israel last year and it saw a reciprocal visit by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in January this year.
Neither has there been a radical shift in India’s policy towards Palestine. New Delhi hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a four-day official visit in May evidently to signal this.
In diplomacy, form cannot be divorced from content and that is why Prime Minister’s Modi visit to Tel works on both levels. “The visit is important because in today’s day and age, we must be clear who our friends are. Given our orientation of our policy, we need to have better and stronger relations with Israel,” says Hardeep Puri, formerly India’s representative to the UN.
The twin pillars of India’s ties with Israel are best described in Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s 1965 slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ (hail the soldier, hail the farmer). Defense and agriculture are the keystones of this relationship and bilateral trade grew from $200 million in 1992 to $4.5 billion in 2016 primarily on the sales of military hardware, agriculture and water technology. The relationship has somewhat stagnated over the past few years and the challenge before the two leaders will be to take it to the next level.
India and Israel have been long term friends. The relationship between the two was intense but stayed in the closet out of fear of upsetting India’s Arab allies. India’s move to establish bilateral ties with Israel in 1992 came only after several Arab countries had already recognized the Jewish state, a point Indian diplomats used to emphasize in the 1990s.  “Are we going to wait for every single Arab nation to establish ties with Israel?” an exasperated Indian diplomat reportedly asked Prime Minister Narasimha Rao as he vacillated over the proposal to establish full scale diplomatic ties in 1992. Rao eventually did take that landmark step 25 years ago.
Military and intelligence ties stretched back even before that and were facilitated by Mossad and R&AW. From Israel’s transfer of small arms to Mukti Bahini fighters in 1971 to training a covert R&AW commando unit in 1982. The relationship surged after 1999. During the Kargil war, Israel shipped 155 mm artillery shells for India’s Bofors guns from its own stocks, leased a military spy satellite and sold two all-weather ‘Astra’ spy planes for R&AW’s air wing.
Israel became India’s sole access to sophisticated western electronic equipment following the Pokharan sanctions. With the opening up of the United States as a major Indian defense equipment supplier, Israel has held steady course as one of India’s top 5 hardware suppliers, a remarkable achievement considering it does not make the capital intensive weapon platforms like fighter jets, major warships or submarines that make up a bulk of India’s defense imports. What Israel does offer are cutting edge electronics, sensors, homeland security systems and missiles at competitive rates.
Terrorism on agenda of talks during Modi visit, says Israeli envoy to India (credit: REUTERS)
The defense relationship continues at a steady pace. In February, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) cleared a Rs 17,000 crore deal for buying 40 Medium Range Surface to Air Missiles (MR-SAM) systems from Israel to equip the Indian Army’s strike corps. There are defence deals worth an estimated $5 billion in the pipeline for electronics, missiles and drones. Cooperation on counter-terrorism is another major area of commonality between the two countries. Prime Minister Modi will emphasize how India and Israel have suffered at the hands of Islamist terror in his hugely significant meeting with Moshe Holtzberg, a ten-year-old boy whose parents were murdered by Pakistani terrorists during the November 26, 2008 attacks on Mumbai.
Moves are afoot to expand the India-Israel relationship beyond  security. On June 25, Prime Minister Netanyahu approved decisions to deepen ties beginning with expanding exports and cooperation in agriculture and water.
Netanayahu’s cabinet approved measures to increase by 25 per cent, India’s non-diamond related exports to India, now $1.38 billion, over the next four years. The cabinet approved the establishment of a joint innovation, research and development fund. No major defense deals are expected to be signed during the visit. The Jerusalem Post says the trip will focus on furthering cooperation in three areas of critical importance to India in which Israel can provide added value: water management, agriculture and technology. Clearly, Modi in Jerusalem will leave a lasting impact.