Israeli officials used to joke India treated their country as its “mistress”. Though India has the most intimate of strategic relations with Israel, it has declined to acknowledge this in public.
Narendra Modi’s announced state visit to Israel, the first one by an Indian prime minister, is the missing piece in the bilateral relationship: a political exchange at the highest level.
This Indian caution had arisen from a fear of a Muslim backlash both at home and abroad. New Delhi’s inhibition was also born of a residual belief in “third worldism” and India’s historic support for Palestinian statehood.
Since India normalised ties with Israel in 1992, however, relations have come to span the entire gamut of security interests. Today, no other country is so intertwined with India’s national security on so many levels.
The two share nuclear military technology – neither does so with any other country. Israel, for example, has provided crucial assistance on how to stabilise a nuclear warhead arsenal as small as India’s. Israeli electronics are what make India’s Russian-made fighters and cruise missiles superior to their Chinese variants. Israeli cyber-security firms are the only foreign ones to receive security classifications on a par with the best Indian ones.
Israel, too, has benefited from this relationship. India bought 33% of Israeli arms exports between 2009 and 2013. With sales of $10 billion in the past decade, India is easily the world’s largest buyer of Israeli weapons.
But Israel passed a more crucial test. During the Kargil war, Israel sent over a dozen technical teams to help, providing guided missiles from its own arsenal to knock out Pakistani-held bunkers. Israel has labelled Pakistan an “enemy state” and has a tighter ban on its citizens doing anything with Pakistan than India does.
Given this unparalleled degree of geopolitical convergence, the refusal of India to send a prime minister or president to Israel has long looked absurd.
Worries of a Muslim backlash have proven unfounded. India’s bonds with Israel, say diplomats, made the likes of Saudi Arabia take New Delhi more seriously. In the present West Asian context, with many Sunni Arab states seeing Israel as a military ally, India has nothing to lose. Israel has long since concluded most Indian Muslims have little or no interest in the Palestinian cause – this is largely a focus of the Indian Left.
Modi, like most Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, has been an unabashed admirer of Israel. But even Rahul Gandhi, say sources, has a private admiration for Israel and once told an Israeli official that relations needed to be more public.
Modi has three reasons to come out of the closet when it comes to Israel.
One is a pattern in his foreign policy of publicly expressing what India actually believes. Modi feels India is strong and confident enough to abandon its past practice of doing one thing and saying another. “He believes India’s natural game is to play on its front foot,” said a senior Indian diplomat, using a cricket analogy.
Two, Modi sees Israel as more than just a security partner. Half of his discussions with Israeli officials are today about the country’s state-of-the-art water knowhow. Israel is also a leader in software, pharmaceuticals and has one of the world’s most advanced tech start-up ecosystems.
Finally, Modi has developed strong personal relations with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu. When the latter won re-election in March, Modi tweeted in Hebrew and English: "Mazel tov, my friend Bibi @Netanyahu. I remember our meeting in New York last September warmly.”
And this is a man who uses “my friend” to describe almost no other world leader.