Key Factors Behind the Improvement in Israel-India Relations
JNS.org – Israel-India relations are currently experiencing a renaissance. Links have been steadily growing in defense and security since the establishment of full diplomatic relations in January 1992 (India officially recognized the State of Israel in 1950, and a consulate opened in Mumbai in 1953).
New Delhi has found in Jerusalem a vital source of advanced military technology. In 1996, the Indian Air Force purchased its first Searcher UAVs from Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI). Since then, a relationship of cooperation has developed to where India is now the largest consumer of Israeli military equipment—exports to India constitute 46% of Israel’s total arms exports. Israel, meanwhile, is the second-largest supplier of military equipment to India after Russia, New Delhi’s traditional arms provider.
Burgeoning India-Israel relations are not limited to defense spending. In agriculture and water management, Indian authorities have partnered with Mashav, Israel’s international development organization, to develop methods to cope with an emergent water crisis. The purpose is to create structures for the rapid transfer of Israeli know-how in such crucial fields as drip irrigation, protected cultivation and “fertigation” (the injection of fertilizers and water–soluble products into an irrigation system) to Indian farmers. The acquisition by the Adani group of Haifa port in 2022 is perhaps the most significant recent development in the commercial field.
Investments in the tech field are also of growing significance, with Teva Pharmaceuticals among the most notable players. Evidence of the deepening connections between Jerusalem and New Delhi in various areas is inescapable. An interesting question, however, concerns the foundations of this edifice.
What factors have brought about the flourishing of relations in recent years? How firm are the links, and what factors might help or hinder deepening their further development in the period ahead? Ultimately, India-Israel relations have developed because of perceptions of shared interests and common challenges and opportunities in various areas, of which two are worthy of consideration. The first and most important is geopolitics and strategy. The second is the cultural-political sphere. There are several similarities in the cultural trajectories of both countries. However, the rise of Hindu nationalist politics in India and the political decline of the Congress Party specifically facilitated the removal of barriers to deeper relations between Jerusalem and New Delhi. The grounding of the alliance in civil society and public sentiment has also been essential.
India and Israel face a common challenge with other Western-aligned states, as the United States, the leader of the democratic world, is recalibrating and reducing its external commitments. There is a consequent need for establishing structures enabling long-term strategic cooperation between powers active in adjacent regions with similar orientations and allegiances. The recent advance in ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has coincided with and impacted the deepening of relations between Israel and India.
These three countries share several characteristics: all are Western-aligned countries with growing economies; all have a common enemy in Sunni Islamist extremism; and all face an imperative to find ways to more closely cooperate in light of the new and emergent strategic reality in which the United States recalibrates its global commitments. In line with this reality, the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in August 2020 has paved the way for an emergent three-way alignment between Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi and New Delhi.
In an influential essay published by the Middle East Institute in July 2021, Egyptian-born strategic thinker Mohammed Soliman posited the emergence of what he termed an “Indo-Abrahamic Alliance,” bringing together the UAE, Israel and India. This alignment, Soliman suggested, would form the basis for a “new trans-regional order” in West and South Asia.
Soliman suggested that the emergence of this alliance would fill the potential vacuum left by an American shift to focus on east Asia. The alignment would be based on deepening formalized cooperation in such crucial areas as maritime security in the Mediterranean, the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, missile defense, drones, a shared opposition to Islamist extremism and data security.
Soliman noted the extensive security cooperation between India and Israel, the burgeoning trade and developing strategic relations between Israel and the UAE since the signing of the Abraham Accords, and the growing connections between India and the UAE.
India’s close relations with the UAE have long been founded on petroleum exports and remittances from a large Indian population working in the UAE. In recent years, non-oil bilateral trade has sharply increased, with the UAE now India’s third-largest trade partner. Israel’s trade relations with the UAE, of course, have flourished since the signing of the Abraham Accords, with a free-trade deal signed in May 2022.
The emergent three-way alignment has also been based on the perceived presence of a rival alignment currently crystallizing—namely, Turkey and Pakistan. While efforts at rapprochement with Ankara on the part of the UAE and Israel are now under way, Ankara’s deeper orientation and ambition, at least for as long as the Islamist AKP remains the governing party, are likely to prevent a significant change. Turkish support for Pakistan vis-à-vis Kashmir did not go unnoticed in India. It led to a sharp decline in India-Turkish relations in the 2019-’21 period, including the termination of a naval deal worth $2.3 billion with a Turkish company and the cancellation of a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Turkey.
However, the economic crisis in Turkey that has helped lead to a reset in UAE-Turkish and Israel-Turkish relations is also impacting India. For the time being, Ankara appears to have placed on hold any notion of its leadership of a bloc of Islamic states, including Pakistan. As a result, at least for now, shared rivalry with Turkey and Pakistan forms a less significant but still notable element in India-UAE-Israel relations.
The establishment under US auspices of the I2U2 group (India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States) during US President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East in July 2022 formalizes and solidifies the strategic partnership between India, Israel and the UAE. Indian commentator Harshil Mehta described the I2U2 as a “platform for the 21st century, driven by economic pragmatism, multilateral cooperation and strategic autonomy.” Mohammed Soliman has expressed the hope that Egypt and Saudi Arabia will eventually form part of this structure, which will be the basis for a new, U.S.-backed, Western-aligned security order in Asia.
The first meeting of the four countries leading to this framework’s establishment took place in October 2021. Early (and partially justified) comparisons were made with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commonly known as the Quad, which brings together the United States, India, Japan and Australia in a similar framework. In both cases, they represent the gathering of pro-Western states into a new multilateral framework intended to serve as the basis for a new regional order and integrated efforts against adversaries.
The two frameworks differ, however, in that the Quad is located in the area set to form the centerpiece of the US global strategy opening up—the Indo-Pacific. At the same time, the I2U2 group is focused on an area becoming less central to the interests of the United States because the key dynamic for Washington is the emergence of China as a peer competitor. In this contest, the Middle East is a significant but secondary front. I2U2 can be seen as the United States trying to create a framework for allies in which the partners themselves, rather than America, will be the main actors. In this regard, there is an additional and significant difference between these two frameworks.
The Quad focuses on common defense and security concerns, and specifically on containing China’s rise. I2U2, by contrast, has no common enemy other than the secondary or tertiary threat of non-state Islamist/jihadi terrorism. Indeed, in significant ways, the member countries have different threat perceptions. Israel regards Iran as a central and existential challenge. The Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel and is the main sponsor worldwide of sub-state armed actors engaged against Israel (and against other US regional allies, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia).
The UAE has been the subject of Iranian aggression, for example the drone attack on three oil refining vehicles at a refinery in Musaffah, Abu Dhabi, on Jan. 17, 2022. The attack probably sought to target the Al Dhafra airbase, where the 380th Air Expeditionary wing of the US Air Force is based. Satellite images in October 2022 revealed that the Emiratis had deployed an Israeli air defense system, the Barak 8, close to Al Dhafra. This system, also known as the LR-SAM or MR-SAM, was jointly developed by India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). The Barak 8 missile defense system is produced by Israel’s Directorate of Research and Development (DDR&D), Elta Systems, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and India’s Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL).
Nevertheless, while the Barak 8 deployment at Al Dhafra might thus be seen as the first visible strategic fruit of I2U2 and Israeli-Indian-Emirati cooperation, it is important not to simplify the strategic picture.
For a period, the UAE was engaged in the military effort in Yemen against the Houthis, who are allies and clients of the Iranians. Abu Dhabi undoubtedly fears the growth of Iranian influence in the region. However, the Emiratis have sought to improve their diplomatic situation with the Iranians over the last year. Full diplomatic relations were restored after a six-year hiatus in August 2022. This policy of rapprochement goes alongside a flourishing trade relationship between the UAE and Iran. The Emirati effort is part of a general orientation by all six of the Gulf Cooperation Council states to try to mend fences with Tehran.
The point here is not that Abu Dhabi lacks concern regarding Iranian regional ambitions but that, unlike Israel, the UAE possesses diplomatic options regarding Iran and intends to use these in combination with its deepening cooperation with Israel.
For this reason, notions that the presence of the Barak 8 system at Al Dhafra heralds the emergence of a joint Israel/UAE/Gulf front against Iran are simplistic and premature.
The United States favors an integrated air defense system for pro-Western Middle East countries threatened by Iran. Israel’s integration into US Central Command helps to facilitate this possibility. However, while progress has been made, the diplomatic complexities, deriving primarily from a perception that the United States is leaving the Middle East and therefore “hedging,” if it is an option, is preferable, undoubtedly remain.
With India, this reality is yet more acute. New Delhi sees no reason to fear Tehran’s ambitions, which do not directly threaten India. Consequently, diplomatic relations between the two countries are cordial, and trade relations continue. Bilateral trade increased in 2022 compared with 2021 after declining in the previous three years. Iran’s exports to India stood at $361 million in January-July 2022 and $267 million during the same period in 2021. India’s exports also saw a 54% rise during the first seven months of 2022.
However, the trend here may still be encouraging from the Israeli perspective if trends are looked at long-term. The I2U2, formally launched in July 2022, solidifies and formalizes the strategic alliance between India and Israel. However, the framework also confirms the growing partnership between India and the United States, taking in the Indo-Pacific region and the Middle East (or West Asia, as Indians refer to this region).
Indeed, it is within the overarching picture of India’s strategic transition from a non-aligned country to a US ally, in the face of Chinese ambitions, that India’s improved relations with Israel can be seen. Indian participation alongside Israel, for example, in the biennial Blue Flag air exercise in 2021 alongside US and other Western air forces is both an indication of the growing strategic relationship between Israel and India and of India’s broader strategy of “looking West,” and increasing cooperation with the United States.
Concerning Iran, India acceded to US requests and ceased oil purchases from Iran in line with renewed US sanctions in 2019. New Delhi observed China’s noncompliance with US desires and its gaining advantage. It is noteworthy that New Delhi has declined to join sanctions against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Both Israel and the UAE have also refused. The question is whether, in the longer term, hedging between the United States and its allies and an emergent Russia-Iran bloc will be feasible.
That is particularly the case given Iran’s role as a pivotal ally to Russia in prosecuting its war in Ukraine, and the growing strategic cooperation between Beijing and Tehran. Will the logic of emergent strategic competition eventually impact ties between Iran and India as nascent members of two rival emergent blocs (in a contest where India neither wishes nor is able to be non-aligned)? That remains to be seen. For the moment, burgeoning relations with Israel and closer connections to the United States exist alongside continued trade with Iran. Establishing the I2U2 framework means that channels now exist through which interactions and substantive cooperation with the United States and Israel can be enhanced and grow.
The cultural-political sphere
The growing Chinese challenge, the consequent need to draw closer to the United States and its allies, and the earlier collapse of the USSR have underlain India’s shifting stance vis-à-vis its neighbors and toward the Middle East and Israel. One can argue that the transformation of relations between India and Israel would have happened in any case, driven by external interests and necessity. Nevertheless, it is the case that improvement in relations has coincided with and has taken place to a considerable extent at the behest of Indian governments dominated by Hindu nationalist political forces. (From the Israeli side, there has been a desire for closer relations stretching back to the earliest days of statehood, one common to all mainstream political movements and trends.)
The similarities between India’s and Israel’s geopolitical situations are notable, despite the vast discrepancy in their size. It is a geographic fact that the two countries are located precisely at the eastern and western edges of the Islamic world. Both are based on ancient civilizations revived into sovereignty due to the decline of European—specifically British—colonialism in the post-1945 period. Both were born in the struggle against the retreating British Empire. Both experienced problems partitioning the land. Both were engaged in wars of defense during their founding and across decades against neighboring Islamic states. Both face ongoing ethno-religious armed conflicts against Muslim enemies.
Beyond these general points, the specific and fascinating commonality derives from similar internal political trajectories. A Westernized, secular, and social-democratic elite led both countries during the struggle for sovereignty and subsequent decades. The movements in question became categorized in later years by corruption and estrangement from the orientations and desires of the populations over whom they ruled.
Both have been replaced in recent decades by parties descended from alternative conceptions of the nation that were present during the pre-state periods of struggle. These remained as alternative frameworks during the early years of statehood and have now become dominant.
In both cases, the formerly subaltern and now dominant orientations are characterized by a more particularistic concept of the nation, a more important place given to religious tradition and observance and a heritage of militancy.
The growth and deepening of the India-Israel strategic partnership directly correlate with the rise of more particularist and nationalist politics in India. Thus, the first administration of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1998 already sought to turn India in a pro-US strategic direction. Relations with Israel developed naturally alongside this, and Ariel Sharon conducted the first state visit to India by an Israeli prime minister in 2003. Following a hiatus in the 2004-14 period (in which material cooperation grew, but not in the framework of a professed and deepening strategic partnership), the arrival in 2014 of Modi’s first majority Hindu nationalist government set the stage for the subsequent renaissance in relations.
Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in 2017. He chose not to visit Ramallah, an attempt to make clear that while India’s traditionally close relationship with the Palestinians remained valuable, more significant ties with Israel would not be subject to Israeli-Palestinian progress or a Palestinian veto. In this regard, the commonality of the India-Israel strategic partnership with the thinking underlying the Abraham Accords is apparent.
Changes subsequently became apparent in India’s stances in multilateral forums, including abstention in the UN Human Rights Council in a vote calling for an inquiry into Israel’s conduct during the war with Hamas in May 2021. The dropping by India in 2016 of the formal demand for a two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian issue based on establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital forms an additional element in this process. The pattern has continued. India abstained from a UN General Assembly resolution in December 2022 that asked the International Court of Justice to give its opinion on what the resolution referred to as Israel’s “prolonged occupation” and annexation of the “Palestinian territories.”
The strategic partnership between India and Israel appears well anchored at the public level. A poll conducted by Israel’s Foreign Ministry in 2009 found that 58% of Indians declared themselves supporters of Israel. Similar levels of warmth and support may easily be discerned on the Israeli side. For example, India has long been the leading destination for young Israelis taking part in post-army tours.
Shared geopolitical interests, historical commonalities, a similar political and cultural trajectory and high levels of mutual support at the civil society level thus constitute the foundations of the Israel-India relationship. The way ahead for the further development of this relationship appears clear. At the same time, significant differences remain over the issue of Iran. These will not prevent advancing relations, but it should be fascinating to see if India’s trajectory toward greater closeness with the West may eventually produce a shift regarding Iran.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is the author of “Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars,” and “The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.” He is a regular contributor to “Jane’s Intelligence Review,” has published in leading journals and media outlets, including “Middle East Quarterly,” “The Times (of London),” “Foreign Policy,” “The Wall Street Journal” and “The Guardian.” He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.