Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined expanded cooperation with Israel during a speech in Tel Aviv on July 5. His was the first visit by an Indian prime minister to Israel.
In his joint statement with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Modi promised to exempt Indian Israelis from the foreign military service ban required of applicants for Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) and Person of Indan Origin (POI) cards. This bolsters over 80,000 Jews’ links to their homeland, as Israel’s compulsory military service previously barred them from official Indian recognition. Air travel between the two countries may increase with a proposed Delhi-Mumbai-Tel Aviv flight service launch, thus expanding trade links.
Israeli-Indian cooperation extends beyond business: Modi promised memoranda of understanding on topics ranging from satellites to water utility reform. He stressed the cultural ties between Israel and India, noting that “India’s ties to Israel are about tradition, culture, mutual trust, and friendship. Israel has shown that more than size, it is the spirit that matters.” This was rare praise for Israel in an era of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).
Before his Tel Aviv speech, Modi met Moshe Holtzberg, the Israeli child who survived the 2008 terrorist attack on Nariman House in Mumbai. He also met with Leader of the Opposition Isaac Herzog and paid respect to the late Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Notably, during this state visit, Modi eschewed visiting the Palestinian territories, despite Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas’ visit to Delhi in May, as well as India’s stated “political support” for the Palestinian cause. Modi’s omission of the PA lies in the sociopolitical reasons for warming Israeli-Indian relations.
The warming of ties to Israel may reflect India’s political climate and the two leaders’ similar backgrounds. Prime Minister Modi began his career with the religious nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organization, which advocates greater religiosity in Indian politics and takes a strongly nationalistic stance in foreign policy disputes, especially with Pakistan. Likewise, Prime Minister Netanyahu grew up influenced by Revisionist Zionism, which combines Jewish nationalism with public expression of Judaism.
Both leaders also saw off rivals to their center and left who promoted a cosmopolitan vision of their countries, secular in religion and conciliatory on the world stage. After decades of non-religious, cosmopolitan parties in power, frustrated publics in India and Israel voted right. Their shared worldview makes Modi and Netanyahu natural allies. Contrarily, Mahmoud Abbas’s left-wing nationalism is unpalatable for Modi and Netanyahu, not least since most Palestinians are Muslim — a distinction marked by decades of conflict.
Domestic politics aside, the sudden intensification in relations between the two Asian nations suggests that the burgeoning Israeli-Indian bond is formalizing into a long-term strategic partnership, more than India’s other Mideast ties. Modi’s visit contrasts with earlier Indian leaders, who balanced mutual strategic and economic interests with pressure from Muslim-majority Pakistan and fellow “non-aligned” nations who supported the Palestinian cause.
Early Israeli-Indian relations tacitly continued despite Indian public neutrality on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Geopolitics renders them natural allies — both are non-Muslim states flanked by hostile Muslim-majority nations. Israel and India gained independence after the Second World War, undergoing ethnoreligious strife which saw mass population exchanges and left sizeable Muslim minorities in both states — 17 percent of Israelis are Muslim, as are 13 percent of Indians.
The resulting border disputes — over the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria, and between India, China, and Pakistan over Kashmir — resulted in the common bond of the besieged. The Jewish State provided India with weapons during the latter’s 1962 war with China, prompting then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to cable: “We are grateful for your concern for the serious situation that we face today in our border regions.”
Formal diplomatic ties began in 1992, 40 years after both nations’ independence. Since then, cooperation has continued unabated. The two nations have strong security links, especially in the realm of arms and nuclear technology — Israel is India’s third-largest arms exporter after the United States and Russia.
Modi declared his visit “an occasion to regenerate the bonds of our friendship and to jointly venture towards new horizons.” The visible changes in Israeli-Indian relations manifested in Modi’s visit portend a future of greater friendship and solidifying ties.
By Samuel Kramer
Samuel G. Kramer is a recent graduate from George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and a master's candidate at Georgetown University. He has interned at the State Department, Department of the Treasury, and the Hudson Institute. The views expressed in this article are his own.