Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat used to call Prime Minister Indira Gandhi “my sister.” Till the disintegration of the Soviet Union, India maintained a non-aligned posture despite signing a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with Moscow in 1971.
The first high-level visit from India took place in 2017, 25 years after the establishment of diplomatic ties. India, all this while, wanted to maintain a distance, but for some years the US has been trying to prop up India for a leadership role in Asia and the Pacific to contain an ascendant China.
Today Benjamin Netanyahu defines the bilateral relationship as a “marriage made in heaven.” Both Israel and India have right-wing governments. Defence production, cyber technology and industrial innovation in a fast-changing world are common interests for both nations.
This bilateral relationship, which mostly hovered around an anti-terrorism agenda in its initial years, is fast expanding to multifaceted defense co-operation. Israel is now India’s third most important source of military hardware after the US and Russia.
Before 1992, India did not pluck up the courage to establish open ties because of its large Muslim minority of more than 200 million and close relations with the Middle East.
The voice of Indian Muslims has grown weaker over time and they are like a rudderless ship today; and the Arab World, hit by the so-called Arab Spring that spiraled into internal strife in some countries, appears somewhat exhausted.
Historically the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been far more sympathetic to Israel than Sonia Gandhi’s Congress. Before 1948, Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru, who became India’s first prime minister, famously rejected a request from Nobel laureate Albert Einstein to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. But M.S. Golwalkar, leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), supported the establishment of Israel. The RSS is widely acknowledged as the ideological mentor of the BJP.
In 1958 Jayaprakash Narayan, a well-known Indian opposition leader, visited Israel and met Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. It is therefore understandable that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the BJP government in India, is so keen to take this relationship to new heights. The BJP has been called “India’s Likud.”
India is one of the important defense spenders in the world. Imports of military hardware constitute a big chunk of that expenditure. While it offers a big market to Israeli companies producing military hardware, India would like to enhance its own defense production capabilities. This could become possible if Israeli companies with cutting-edge technologies are allowed to set up plants in India with transfer of technology clauses in joint venture deals. During Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit earlier this year, two companies, Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael, signed such contracts.
This bilateral relationship, which mostly hovered around an anti-terrorism agenda in its initial years, is fast expanding to multifaceted defense co-operation
Indian leaders have openly appreciated Israeli resilience despite a hostile geo-political environment. Both leaderships believe that there are commonalities in their threat perceptions. Security and defense co-operation is the linchpin of this relationship.
During his Indian visit, Netanyahu said that active intelligence-sharing by the two governments had pre-empted 30 terrorist attacks around the world in recent years. “I think the key word here is defense. We want to defend ourselves; we are not aggressive nations,” he said.
Can one take this claim at face value knowing the practices unleashed by Israel in Palestine?
To its credit, India did vote against President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem during the UN General Assembly meeting.
Looking at its shifting positions in the past, will India change its stand, with such deep and strategic relations with Israel? Its bonhomie with Israel is well entrenched.
• Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst.