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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Indian Prime Minister Modi’s Historic Trip to Israel

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made history as the first Indian head of government to visit Israel since the two countries established formal diplomatic relations in 1992. Prime Minister Modi’s trip fulfilled a commitment he made shortly after becoming prime minister in May 2014. During his three-day stay on July 4-6, Modi expressed deep affection for Israel and demonstrated the remarkable advancement of the two countries’ ties over the last 25 years. “We are confident that 25 years from now, Indians and Israelis will look back on this visit as the first of many historical milestones that we reached together in the great friendship between our peoples,” wrote Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a joint editorial published in the Indian and Israeli press just before the trip.


During the visit, Modi and Netanyahu pledged to deepen bilateral cooperation in a variety of areas.


The two countries announced seven new agreements, including in areas like water conservation, agriculture and space. India and Israel also agreed to set up a new $40 billion technological innovation fund, establish a joint CEOs forum and facilitate the granting of business visas.


These understandings coincide with an already large body of cooperative arrangements between the two countries in both defense and civilian areas. Just in the past few months, for example, the government-owned Israel Aerospace Industries reached two major deals with India: a $2 billion contract to provide missiles to the Indian army and for India’s first aircraft carrier, and an additional $630 million contract to supply missile defense systems to the Indian navy. On the civilian side, Israel is establishing up to 30 centers of excellence in local communities across India to help train farmers and utilize modern technology to improve sanitation. 


Modi’s Israel trip represents a fundamental, symbolic milestone.


The Modi visit demonstrates that the Jewish state is continuing to expand its relations with other countries even in the face of a pernicious delegitimization campaign: That the leader of the world’s second-largest country (1.3 billion people) with the world’s second-largest Muslim population (180 million) came to Israel (with a population half the size of India’s capital, New Delhi) to embrace its prime minister and deepen bilateral ties underscores that fact. To fully appreciate the significance of Modi’s highly-publicized visit, one should contrast his embrace with the increasing isolation and stigmatization Israel faces from several European countries and international organizations. The progress of Indian-Israeli relations should give pause to proponents of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.


India and Israel did not always enjoy cordial relations.


Ties between these two countries have succeeded against early odds. Although both countries endured painful partition experiences in the late 1940s on their respective paths to independence, both India’s and Israel’s interests diverged over the subsequent four decades. While India allowed Israel to establish a consulate in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1953, India’s leaders preferred to maintain diplomatic distance. As a co-founder of the Non-Aligned Movement, India chose to support Egypt and other Arab countries in their confrontation with Israel. By the 1970s, India had become a vocal critic of Israel and champion of the Palestinian cause. And for many years, Indian leaders resisted close ties to Israel, fearing alienation from their Arab and Iranian friends as well as tens of millions of Indian Muslim voters.


This frosty relationship began to thaw in the late 1980s in response to internal conditions in India and external global events. At home, Indian leaders embraced economic reform and global integration to boost India’s failing economy. In response to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the 1991 Madrid peace conference, India revisited its relations with Israel, culminating in the establishment of full diplomatic relations in 1992 and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2003 visit to India.   


Relations with Israel have steadily grown in areas of common interests. 


Improving relations with Israel would eventually become a consensus issue among India’s two largest political parties, the left-leaning Congress Party and the right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party, currently headed by Prime Minister Modi. Accordingly, Indian relations with Israel have steadily grown, even as government leadership has oscillated between the two parties in recent decades.


On the defense front, Israel has become India’s second-largest arms supplier, a reliable partner in counterterrorism cooperation and a collaborator in joint training exercises, weapons testing and satellite launches.


India also faces significant challenges in areas like water management, renewable energy and agriculture. Israeli technological advances in these realms can in turn greatly benefit India. "Israel has progressed so much today because of its penchant for innovation," Prime Minister Modi said during his visit. "India and Israel can walk together shoulder to shoulder in the field of technology."  


Overall non-defense trade between the two countries grew from $200 million in 1992 to approximately $5 billion in 2016. Both countries have also been promoting increased people-to-people cooperation and tourism. Thus, Indian tourism to Israel grew by nearly 50 percent in January-March 2017 from the same period in 2015. 


As a country that had wholeheartedly endorsed the Palestinian narrative with respect to Israel, India now sees no contradiction in pursuing good relations independently with both parties.


While in Israel, Prime Minister Modi and his team notably made clear that they see no linkage or contradiction between their relationship with Israel and their relationship with the Palestinians or wider Arab world; in fact, the Indian prime minister purposely chose not to visit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah when he was only a few miles away in Jerusalem. While it is true that President Abbas visited India just weeks prior in May, it was once unthinkable for India to uncouple its historic support for Palestinian national aspirations from its ties with Israel.


Modi’s visit underscores the two countries’ newly forged partnership in dealing with the significant challenges in their respective dangerous neighborhoods. 


Soon after becoming prime minister in May 2014, Modi decided to build upon the efforts of his predecessors in terms of advancing relations with Israel. When he attended the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly in New York in September 2014, he held separate publicized meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and American Jewish leaders. Since then, while India has continued to support the majority of anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N., it has abstained from several, representing a positive departure from past practices.


During his Israel visit, Prime Minister Modi emphasized the two countries’ important partnership in fighting terrorism and confronting India’s high poverty rate. He spoke of what he saw as the shared values and destinies of two historic civilizations that span beyond the narrow interests of two nation-states. For Israel, the prime minister’s visit and the deepening of bilateral relations with India represent an important milestone, especially given the ongoing international campaign of political and economic isolation against it. 


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