As Israel's President Reuven Rivlin lands in India on Monday, he will find an Indian government that is ready to celebrate its close ties with his country. India’s relations with Israel, more so its defence co-operation with the nation, are now out of the closet. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now willing to publicly acknowledge the importance of the Indian-Israeli relations, especially in regards to security.
At the same time, India will continue to balance its relations with Israel along with its growing engagements in the Gulf region. Modi had made it a point to visit the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Countries as well Iran. India had also hosted a ministerial meeting of the Arab-India Co-operation Forum. The Modi government has vigorously carried forward India’s engagement with the Arab world.
Ever since former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao had upgraded relations with Israel in 1992, India’s ties with Tel Aviv have soared. Both the Congress and the BJP have promoted relations with Israel. But in the past, India's defence and security ties with the nation were usually not spoken of publicly. Israeli Ambassadors since 1992, while briefing reporters, would often say that a lot is happening in defence albeit with the caveat that they don’t want to make it public for obvious reasons.
The obvious reasons were India’s historical support for the Palestinian cause, New Delhi’s sensitivity towards the Gulf States and the fact that millions of Indian were working out of the area and sending back much needed foreign exchange. But over the years, with many of the Arab countries themselves working, sometimes openly and often clandestinely, with Israel, that concern no longer holds.
India, under both the BJP and the Congress governments, has steadily increased its defence purchases from Israel. Today, Israel is India’s third largest defence supplier, after Russia and the US. In the last decade alone, India has bought defence hardware from Israel worth USD 12 billion, making India Israel’s biggest defence customer.
President Rivlin – on his first state visit to India – was previously a politician of the ruling Likud party and was once an arch rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is a hardliner and was bitterly opposed to the Oslo accord of 1993. He also supports the Israeli settlements in the Gaza strip.
On the agenda for his visit are terror, defence deals, business and overall political ties. The defence deals, worth nearly three billion dollars, have already been cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security.
“Israel is one of the first countries to implement the ‘Make in India’ vision. There are already plans for joint ventures for making 'for India' by Israeli companies, with the support of the Israeli government,” Israel’s Ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, said at a news conference ahead of the visit.
The six day trip will also take President Rivlin to Agra, Karnal, Chandigarh and Mumbai. “We are in the final stages of finalising an agreement on water, energy, agriculture research and development and education,” the envoy said.
Representatives from the defence industry as well as a business delegation will be travelling to India at the same time. Apart from defence, Israel is also cooperating with India in water management, dry irrigation and other fields of expertise, underlining the fact that the ties are not confined just to arms.
But defence purchases are what drive the India-Israel relationship. Both countries are also politically aligned, especially since India’s relations with the US has seen a sea change. New Delhi remembers how Israel played a part in getting US lawmakers to pass the '123 agreement' in the US Congress during the civil nuclear deal negotiations.
There is much admiration for Israel’s strong anti-terror stand among large sections of people in India. Many in the country would like the state to be as tough as Israel. Hot pursuit and surgical strike are concepts that Israel has used with alacrity. Indians, especially the Hindutva supporters, hold Israel as an example of a country which knows how to fight terror.
Many want India to follow Israel’s example. Modi himself referred to Israel in his address following the Indian Army’s post Uri surgical strike: “Our army’s valour is being discussed across the country these days. We used to hear earlier that Israel has done this. The nation has seen that the Indian Army is no less than anybody,” he said. That is of course political hyperbole. But the admiration for Israel is apparent.
President Pranab Mukherjee's last year visit to Israel was a path-breaker. He was the first Indian Head of state to break the 'taboo'. The BJP has always advocated closer relations with Israel, but even former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had not travelled to Israel. New Delhi has also made sure that a visit to Israel was balanced by a trip to the Palestinian state.
In fact, President Mukherjee spent a night there during his Israel trip. Mukherjee had noted during his visit that Israel had always helped India at crucial times. The reference was to the Kargil operations in 1999, as well as during the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. Though this was all hush-hush back then.
Apart from the President’s visit, India also showed support for Israel at the UN Human Rights Council. India abstained from voting on a resolution criticising Israel's use of excessive force in the 2014 Gaza crisis. Though the Ministry of External Affairs had said that India had abstained because of the reference to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the resolution. India is not signatory to the statute for the ICC. This was perhaps the first time that India had stayed away from an anti-Israel resolution. Tel Aviv was delighted. Though New Delhi clearly went with another explanation.
The next big-ticket item in the India-Israel calendar will be Modi’s visit to Israel next year. In 2017, the two countries will mark 25-years of establishing diplomatic ties. India has so far succeeded in balancing its ties with Israel with the growing co-operation of the Arab world.