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India-Israel relations: How did they go from acrimonious ties to strategic partnership? EXPLAINED

Former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had opposed the bifurcation of Palestine and maintained informal relations with Israel. Over the years, bilateral ties between India and Israel have flourished, particularly under PM Narendra Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu.

Aveek Banerjee Written By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee New Delhi Updated on: October 10, 2023 20:36 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Israeli counterpart
Image Source : PTI Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu.

As Hamas launched its deadliest attack on Israel, which claimed the lives of over 900 people on both sides, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a telephonic conversation with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, where the former extended his support to the Jewish nation in this moment of unprecedented crisis.

"I thank Prime Minister @netanyahu for his phone call and providing an update on the ongoing situation. The people of India stand firmly with Israel in this difficult hour. India strongly and unequivocally condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations," wrote PM Modi on social media platform X.

On the day Hamas launched a barrage of rocket attacks towards Israel on Saturday daybreak, PM Modi had responded in a similar manner, terming the incursion as "terrorist attacks" and once again expressed solidarity with the country. The message was reposted by External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar.

Since the creation of Israel in 1948, India's ties with the country as well as its arch-nemesis Palestine have gone through several changes, from not recognising the Jewish state to establishing close diplomatic relations and becoming a key trade partner.

Here's a look at how relations between India and Israel have evolved through the decades amid the latter's conflict with Palestine.

Nehru's policy towards Israel and Palestine

In 1948, a year after India's independence, the nation of Israel was formed when the United Nations called for the territory of Palestine to be split into Jewish and Arab states. Several Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria opposed the creation and would eventually join forces against Israel in several wars later. 

In the post-independence era, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi strongly opposed the creation of the Jewish state based on religious exclusivity and lent support to the Palestinian cause. Although they were sympathetic to the cause of the Jews, they opposed Israel in line with general consensus among Arab nations and its Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

Hence, in 1947, India voted against the United Nations' plan for partition of Palestine and again when Israel voted for admission within the global body. However, India formally recognised Israel's sovereignty in 1950 after Turkey and Iran. Nehru said that he "did not want to "offend the sentiments of friends in Arab countries".

Israel was permitted to open a consulate in Mumbai in 1953, but an official diplomatic presence in New Delhi was not allowed at the time. The relations remained largely informal as India maintained its support for Palestine. The Mumbai consulate served as the only gateway of contact between the two countries and sent Indian Jews to Israel.

India's large Muslim population and the fear of jeopardising relations with the Arab nations also prevented it from establishing full-fledged relations with Israel. Meanwhile, Nehru played an active role in supporting Palestine. Despite seeking Israel's help in the Indo-China war in 1962, the relations did not change to much extent.

The bonhomie between Indira Gandhi and Yasser Arafat

Under former PM Indira Gandhi's regime, relations between India and Palestine entered a new phase. Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) shared a close relationship with Indira Gandhi and became a frequent visitor to Delhi in the 1980s.

India Tv - PLO leader Yasser Arafat with former Indian PM Indira Gandhi

Image Source : XPLO leader Yasser Arafat with former Indian PM Indira Gandhi

In 1975, India formally recognised PLO as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and even opened an office in New Delhi. India further established full diplomatic ties with the PLO after Indira Gandhi returned to power by opening a Palestinian embassy in 1980. Arafat attended the NAM Summit held in April 1984 in New Delhi, which strongly expressed support for Palestine.

Arafat reportedly expressed grief at the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Her son Rajiv Gandhi continued the same policy towards Palestine even through the first intifada (uprising) in Gaza in 1987. India also officially recognised the Palestinian National Council's declaration of independence in 1988.

On the other hand, relations between India and Israel improved after the latter assisted in the India-Pakistan war in 1971, also known as the Bangladesh Liberation War. Israel would also assist India in the 1999 Kargil War several years later.

Full diplomatic relations with Israel

After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, India witnessed a change in foreign policy and dilution of its previous non-aligned movement in the wake of the post-liberalisation period and New Delhi gradually tilted towards the US. As such, India formally established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 under then-PM Narasimha Rao and opened an embassy in Tel Aviv, while Israel also opened up an embassy in New Delhi.

Arafat, who continued to visit India in the 1990s, was told that diplomatic relations between India and Israel would be helpful for the Palestinian cause. Israel went out to support Indian forces during the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan, after which the bilateral ties became even stronger.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) proceeded to further strengthen relations with Israel, with PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee sending External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh for the first bilateral visit in 2000, followed by another visit by ex-Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani. Economic ties, defence collaborations and technological exchanges between India and Israel flourished in these times. 

The newly-established friendly relations with Israel also became a tightrope for India vis-a-vis its policy towards Palestine. India has maintained a neutral stance in the Israel-Palestine conflict and even condemned Israeli military actions in Palestinian territories. Overall, India has continued friendly relations with both Israel and Palestine till 2014, when PM Narendra Modi came into power.

PM Modi and Netanyahu's friendship

Relations between India and Israel further flourished under PM Modi, who has maintained a close relationship with his Israeli counterpart Netanyahu. This culminated into a historic visit by the Prime Minister to Israel on July 2017, during which bilateral relations were upgraded to a strategic level and numerous Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) signed in the fields of cyber security, oil and gas cooperation, transport among others.

Former President Pranab Mukherjee also visited Israel in 2015, followed by a visit by ex-Israeli President Reuven Rivlin the next year. Both countries have expanded cooperation in the areas of trade, agriculture, culture and defence. In the time of major global shifts, the growing bonhomie resulted in Israel becoming the second-highlighted supplier of weapons and one of the largest trading partners of India.

Over the last few years, India and Israel have conducted several joint military drills and hosted exchange visits. After Netanyahu's visit in 2018, the ambit of India-Israel cooperation also included space, information sharing and counter-terrorism. Israel and India are part of the I2U2 group formed in 2021 and New Delhi has also abstained from many UN resolutions against the Jewish state.

One of the crucial aspects of India-Israel relations is the former's desire to modernise an ailing defence industry. India suffered from several constraints in defence production and Israel is the perfect nation to provide state-of-the-art technology such as UAVs, missile defence systems, radars and more.

Israel has also become a preferable destination for Indian students. As of now, Israel has around 18,000 Indian nationals, most of them working as caregivers employed by Israeli elders. Others include diamond traders, IT professionals and students. 

However, India has maintained its ties with Palestine as well - hosting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2017. PM Modi later achieved a complete dehyphenation of the ties with a visit to Palestine in 2018. The careful tightrope wall vis-a-vis Palestine has been done to avoid Israel's regional rivals.

Over the last decade, India has deepened ties with other partners in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Iran. The latest attacks by Hamas in Israel may put India in a tight spot that threatens Indian diplomacy overtures.

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