Two ancient civilisations, two post-colonial states, two democracies, two centres of culture and faith, two nations with vibrant global diasporas: it was only natural that India and Israel would forge not only diplomatic relations, but a unique and enduring partnership. Now, 25 years to the day after Delhi and Jerusalem launched formal ties, we can see the impressive contours and products of an evolving Indo-Israeli alliance—and project even greater mutual benefit in the years to come.
It took decades for India and Israel to graduate from informal and consular ties, begun shortly after both countries achieved independence, to an exchange of ambassadors and an acknowledgement of the potential fruits of open cooperation. But after that line was crossed by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao on 29 January 1992, Indians and Israelis made up for the lost time.
Over a quarter-century, through governments of the right and left in both countries, the relationship grew. Today, with an embassy in New Delhi and consulates in Mumbai and Bengaluru, with an expanding network of agricultural technology “centres of excellence” engaged in training programmes for farmers across India,and with new investments, joint ventures and contracts announced with stunning regularity, Israel has demonstrated its deep commitment to exploring every opportunity for intensified ties.
Both countries recognise the potential for capitalising on the ingenuity, resources and markets of the other. That potential will be more fully realised once the long-negotiated but not-yet-concluded India-Israel Free Trade Agreement, in the works since 2010, is finally signed. Friends of India and Israel, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) prominent among them, expect that step to be taken this year.
On his visit to India last November, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin expressed the hopes and intentions harboured by so many of his countrymen when he declared, “India is a top trade partner for Israel. We have come here today to send a strong message: We are here to make in India, to make with India. We are here to grow our economies together in full partnership for the benefit of all of us.”
The Rivlin visit bookended a year of elevated attention in both countries to the value and possibilities of partnership—launched with the historic visit to Israel by President Pranab Mukherjee in October 2015. That Prime Minister Narendra Modi dispatched the head of state on this path-breaking mission sent a powerful message to the public and the political establishments in both countries—and to their friends around the world —that bilateral relations between these sister democracies had entered a new era, and that the official shyness that had characterised the relationship for decades (even as their strategic cooperation intensified) was a thing of the past.
Gone are the days when fear of offending domestic constituencies or powerful neighbours inhibited revelation of the developing partnership in multiple sectors between India and Israel. A habit of mind that had kept the Indian public in the dark about a relationship yielding tangible benefits to their country’s technological advancement and defence capabilities was rendered obsolete—replaced by the truth. The sky did not fall. Expatriate workers were not imperilled or expelled. Internal politics were not thrown into disarray. In fact, a strong case could be made that frankness about Indo-Israeli friendship and partnership has yielded its own rewards—in showcasing the Prime Minister’s independence from tired political orthodoxies, as well as India’s capacity to balance not only its vital and growing interdependence with the West and its Cold War friendship and military ties with Moscow, but its parallel and non-contradictory support both for Palestinians’ quest for statehood and Israel’s security and legitimacy.
From the early days of full Indo-Israeli relations to today, cooperation benefiting both countries has boomed, with trade increasing more than 20-fold, to close to $6 billion, combined tourism growing to some 90,000 visitors a year, and vast increases in academic, scientific and cultural exchange.
Indians and Jews are natural friends and allies. One sees this in the United States, where AJC—at the same time that Indo-Israel ties have blossomed—has developed the closest possible links with leaders of the Indian American community, establishing political, fraternal, and business connections, and advocating together for strengthened US-India strategic cooperation (including the landmark Civil Nuclear Agreement of 2008), and standing together against US military assistance to terrorist-supporting states.
The links will grow stronger this year, as Indian Americans and American Jews join their brethren in India and Israel in celebrating the 25th anniversary of a remarkable partnership. They will grow with the expected visit to Israel by Prime Minister Modi—a first by a sitting Indian Prime Minister, although the second time for PM Modi. They will grow with the expected reciprocal visit to India by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; it will be the first visit by a sitting Israeli Prime Minister since Ariel Sharon in 2003.
The stage is set for an appropriately grand celebration. With friends of both countries cheering from abroad, the next quarter-century, beginning tomorrow, can be expected to bring even greater benefits to Indians and Israelis from the partnership that began on this date 25 years ago.
Jason Isaacson is Associate Executive Director for Policy of the American Jewish Committee. He heads AJC’s Washington-based Office of Government and International Affairs.