India-Israel relations development: India from “non-aligned” to “pro-West”?

On November 2, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held his first official meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Bennett on the sidelines of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow, UK. The two leaders The two leaders reviewed the bilateral strategic partnership and pledged to further expand cooperation in the areas of high technology and innovation. Bennett called Modi “the most popular man in Israel” and thanked the latter for his contribution to “rekindling the deep ties between Indian and Jewish civilizations. Modi also said he values his friendship with Israel and will invite Bennett to visit India in 2022, the 30th anniversary of India-Israel diplomatic relations.

The warm interaction between Modi and Bennett is just a snapshot of the recent high level exchanges between the two countries. Since August 2021, India has sent then Chief of Staff of the Air Force Badauriya, current Foreign Minister Sujeet Sang, and current Chief of Army Staff Naravane to Israel, raising the level of defense cooperation between the two countries to new heights.

India and Israel have always had a strong military procurement relationship. India is Israel’s largest arms export destination, and Israel has long ranked among the top three sources of Indian arms imports. According to a report released in March 2021 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden, Israel accounted for 13 percent of India’s arms imports from 2016 to 2020, second only to Russia’s 49 percent and France’s 18 percent; India, in turn, accounted for 45 percent of Israel’s arms exports. India relies heavily on Israel for guided weapons, drones and other equipment.In September 2021, the Indian Air Force officially received the Medium Range Surface-to-Air Missile (MRSAM) system from Israel. The system, jointly developed by Israel Aerospace Industries and India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), is capable of eliminating enemy fighter jets, missiles, and other air threats at a range of 70 kilometers. In addition, the Indian Ministry of Defense has also agreed to a $200 million order with Israel for a new generation of Heron UAVs in early 2021. The Indian Army also plans to procure equipment such as the Firefly patrol bomb from Israel.

At the same time, India also hopes to use Israel’s technology and funds to improve the level of military industry “Made in India”. Since Modi’s first visit to Israel by an Indian prime minister in 2017 and the elevation of bilateral relations to a “strategic partnership,” the focus of India-Israel cooperation has shifted to “knowledge-based partnership.” In October 2021, defense ministry officials from both countries met in Tel Aviv, Israel, for the 15th time to discuss the issue. In October 2021, officials from the two countries’ Ministries of Defense held their 15th joint working group meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel, and decided to establish a task force to develop a 10-year roadmap for India-Israel defense cooperation to enhance the integration of defense resources, technology and industrial capabilities between the two countries. In November of the same year, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Israel’s Defense Research and Development Agency (DRDA) signed a “Bilateral Innovation Agreement” aimed at strengthening cooperation between startups from both countries in areas such as drones, robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum technology, and biosensing.

In addition to traditional defense cooperation, the “chemistry” between India and Israel on strategic interests and values during the Modi administration is also intriguing. As India-US relations have surged, more and more observers have seen the development of India-Israel relations as an important manifestation of India’s diplomatic shift from a “non-aligned” to a “pro-Western” orientation. In a meeting with Israeli officials and business leaders in October 2021, Foreign Minister Sajjan called Israel “the most trusted and innovative partner” for India. On the 18th of the same month, Sajith held a new “quadripartite economic forum” online with Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah, and U.S. Secretary of State Blinken to exchange views on regional economic and political cooperation, trade promotion, and maritime security, which generated much debate in the Indian strategic community. Some Indian strategic scholars advocate a “quadrilateral mechanism” in the Middle East similar to the U.S., Japan, India and Australia to enhance India’s strength against China in the Western Indian Ocean region. Although this argument does not resonate with Israel and the UAE, it reflects the high expectations that the Indian strategic community has for Israel. In the view of the Indian strategic community, India-Israel strategic cooperation should not be limited to addressing security threats such as terrorism, but should take the form of an “exclusive mini-multilateral mechanism” that integrates with the strategic goals of U.S.-India synergy.

Interestingly, the Modi government’s interaction with Israel also serves as a projection of India’s domestic ideological contradictions. India’s left-wing political forces have long made opposition to Israel and support for Palestine the cornerstone of India’s “non-aligned” foreign policy, and have attributed the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s strategic partnership with Israel to “the spirit of Hindu nationalism and Zionism. The anti-Muslim leanings of the RSS, the parent organization of the BJP, contributed to Modi’s close interaction with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his successor Bennett. continued bombing of the Gaza Strip sparked international public condemnation, but gained solidarity with pro-Indian party forces on Indian social media. For example, the tweet “Hang in there, Israel” by the leader of the Hindu Youth Organization, Lok Sabha member Tejaswi Surya, was retweeted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and received tens of thousands of likes.

However, despite the “closeness” that India and Israel have shown in recent years, there has not been a fundamental shift in India’s stance on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Modi has pursued a policy of “decoupling Palestine and Israel” in Middle East diplomacy since he came to power in 2014. On the one hand, this is reflected in the fact that India is no longer constrained by the Palestinian factor in developing its relations with Israel, but is developing its relations with Israel independently according to its own strategic interests. On the other hand, India is still careful to maintain its “strong support for the just Palestinian cause” in international forums to avoid unnecessary complications in the rising India-Israel relationship. While India’s social media campaign in May 2021 was full of support for Israel, India, a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, did not officially support Israel. In a statement to the Security Council, India’s representative to the UN, Tirumurti, condemned any unilateral change in the status quo by force and reiterated India’s “support for the just cause of Palestine. But the subsequent development of India-Israel relations, guided by the principles of pragmatic diplomacy between the two countries, does not seem to have been affected by these statements.

While India-Israel relations are developing rapidly, India’s relations with the Islamic world have not cooled. India’s strategic interests in energy and security have survived the changes in the Middle East not only because of the Modi government’s balanced diplomatic techniques such as “decoupling Israel and Palestine”, but also because of the objective changes in relations between countries in the region. The improvement in relations between Israel and the Arab countries has not only enabled India to avoid the embarrassing situation of “choosing sides” in the Middle East chaos, but also provided an opportunity for India to expand its “Western Alliance” strategy for the vast region of the West Wing. In particular, the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel, India’s key partners in the Gulf region, in August 2020 offers the possibility of building a network of strategic partnerships in the Middle East.

However, as the convergence of India’s interests with the Middle East continues to expand, New Delhi’s space to maneuver between them is shrinking. For example, in October 2021, the Israeli ambassador to India publicly accused Iran of being the “biggest destabilizing factor” in the Middle East through the Indian media in New Delhi, and was heavily criticized by the Iranian embassy in India. Although Israel and Iranian institutions abroad have already been involved in verbal sparring in several countries, for India, the intensifying Iran-Israel conflict may make India’s policy trade-offs more difficult. India’s influence on Afghan affairs and its strategic investment in the southeastern Iranian port of Chabahar cannot be separated from Iranian support, but the rapid development of India-Israeli relations may have posed a blow to the strategic trust between New Delhi and Tehran. The global game of the great powers and the intense struggle between regional powers may make India’s multiple bets in the Middle East even more costly.