Indo-Israel Relationship: Through Thin and Thick

Charting the timeline of India’s relationship with Israel, one will be astounded at the mutual cooperation displayed by both the nations. India had initially voted against Israel’s creation (specifically on religious terms) in 1948 but eventually recognised it in 1950. India stayed quiet for some time before Nehru openly acknowledged the fact and permitted opening an Israeli consulate in Bombay in 1953. It was only in 1992 when both nations established full diplomatic relations, and since then the relationship has grown tremendously at the economic, military, agricultural, and political levels. From non-recognition to becoming a closest ally, strategic and economic interests have taken over the traditional values of previous Indian policy towards Israel.

There were three main reasons for not establishing a formal relationship with Israel:

  1. After independence, both countries ideologically found themselves headed in opposite directions. India led the Non-Aligned Movement and maintained a tight relationship with the USSR; Israel, on the other hand, had close ties with the US and the western hemisphere.
  2. Indian foreign policy for the Middle East was also influenced by religious values. PM Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors did not want to antagonise the Muslim populace by establishing a relationship with Israel. Indian politicians and bureaucrats feared that close relations with the Jewish nation might provocate its Muslim citizens. 
  3. The Nehru government also did not want to pursue diplomatic relations with Israel as it supported the Palestinian cause. He believed that allowing Israel to open an embassy in New Delhi might damage its relations with the Arab world.

Unbeknownst to the world, India already had strong covert relations with Israel prior to 1992. In fact, in 1962[1], PM Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Israeli PM Ben Gurion seeking help during the war with China. Israel responded by sending weapons for the Indian military, making it the first for a defence deal between the two countries. Again prior to the Indo-Pak war in 1971[2], PM Golda Meir sent arms and instructors to help Indian forces and Mukti Bahini. In early 1983[3], a team of special group commandos were sent to Israel for training. They were trained by a specialist team from Mossad which had earlier rescued hostages from Uganda’s Entebbe airport.

Over the last 28 years, bilateral trade between the two countries has increased from $200 million to more than $4 billion (excluding defence). In 1999 India received vital military assistance from Israel which helped us in winning the Kargil War against Pakistan. Currently, India is the largest defence customer for Israel.

The last decade witnessed a monumental shift in the Indo – Israel relationship. In February 2014, India and Israel had signed three important agreements on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, Cooperation in Homeland Security, and Protection of Classified Material which was a great success. In 2017, Indo-Israel relations took a step forward with an Indian Prime Minister’s first-ever visit to Israel. Mr. Narendra Modi in his two day trip in Israel, signed seven agreements/MoUs in the fields of agriculture, water, space, and R&D innovation. In the following years, a surge in high-level exchanges and ministerial visits on both sides confirmed developed and extended cooperation as defense deals plummeted, business ventures were successful and growing, and agriculture welcomed innovation and implementation of the latest technologies from Israel.

The India-Israel Industrial R&D and Technological Innovation Fund, a $40 million fund, spanning over five years was also signed in this visit. The objective was to encourage partnership between Indian and Israeli innovators. They also initiated the India-Israel Innovation Bridge” a platform that was dedicated to bringing together Indian and Israeli entrepreneurs, start-ups to collaborate on a series of innovative projects related to water, agriculture, and health.

India has specifically managed to uplift the agricultural scenario with Israel’s help. Israeli’s expertise and technologies in protected cultivation, micro-irrigation, horticulture mechanisation, orchard and canopy management, Nursery management, and post-harvest management have changed the results in farms across Haryana and Maharashtra. India widely uses Israeli drip irrigation technology and products today.

In spite of having such close ties with Israel, India has always maintained a friendly relationship with Palestine. It was the first non-Arab nation to recognise the PLO and always backed the Palestinian cause. But a shift in policy has been noticed in the past few years under the Modi government.  India first abstained from voting when the UNHRC report alleging Israel’s war crimes was tabled in the UN and in July 2019, India voted in support of Israel at the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to deny observer status to a Palestinian human rights organisation called ‘Shahed’. The nationalistic ethos of the BJP government may be the reason behind the shift in India’s stance. In fact, Israel has climbed up India’s diplomatic agenda since Narendra Modi took over the country’s reins in 2014. A similar, realignment of the policy was seen during the Vajpayee government between 1999 and 2004. 

The fact is governments come and go, but the core ideologies behind a strong relationship will always remain. So, if we map the journey of India’s relation with Israel, we get an idea of accomplishments that these independent democracies have achieved together. This relationship particularly has panned out as a unique testament for countries to look up to. There is no denying the fact that all will not be roses, but despite the upcoming hurdles, these countries definitely have the willingness to pull through together.


[1] Kallol Bhattacherjee, “With Nehru writing to its PM, Israel gave arms to India in 1962,” The Hindu, May 27, 2017, available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/with-nehru-writing-to-its-pm-israel-gave-arms-to-india-in-1962/article18591835.ece

[2] Saikat Datta, “Israel helped India in 1971 war, reveals book,” Hindustan Times, November 01, 2013, available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/israel-helped-india-in-1971-war-reveals-book/story-amCGMddJKr7fplQkyPG1UM.html

[3] Prabhash K Dutta, “Israel’s invisible hand behind Operation Blue Star of 1984,” India Today, June 06, 2018, available at https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/operation-blue-star-special-group-commandos-mossad-training-israel-1251738-2018-06-06

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