More than two years have passed since the May 2014 Indian elections when Narendra Modi, leader of the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was swept into power. His “landmark” victory made him independent of the smaller, left-wing and Muslim parties. In talks with the Israeli Prime Minister he indicated his intention to change India’s Israel policy from political coolness and diplomatic distance to open friendship and collaboration.
In India, major foreign and domestic policy changes are generally slow and cumbersome, but with respect to Israel Modi acted quickly. Military relations were boosted by the removal of obstacles to pending deals, and new deals were initiated. In February 2015, Israel’s defense minister made an official visit to India, the first of its kind. Modi has also encouraged trade and cooperation in many civilian sectors. Perhaps most surprising, he made sure that the Lokh Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, did not denounce Israel for its conduct in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014. Further, the Indian delegation to the United Nations was instructed to abstain from one (but not all) of the numerous anti-Israeli resolutions submitted there. India has since supported a few anti-Israeli resolutions regarding settlement activity.
Ultimately, the positions India endorses at the UN do not necessarily reflect a true picture of its friendship with Israel. Many of India’s recent policy shifts can be seen as having accelerated relations that had already been growing long before Modi. Military relations, civilian trade, and tourism had been increasing at least since 2000, even when the Congress Party ruled India, although it preferred to keep these relations as discreet as possible.
Two highly publicized political visits revealed the depth to which India’s public attitude toward Israel has changed under Modi. India’s President Pranap Mukherjee paid a state visit to Israel in October 2015, the first of its kind since 1948. In his speech before the Knesset he extended India’s hand of friendship to Israel, condemned anti-Israel terrorism, and alluded to the thousand-year-old links between the Indian and Jewish peoples. Shortly after, in January 2016, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj came to Israel and said that India’s ties with the Jewish state were of the “highest importance.” In a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah the day before arriving in Israel, however, Mukherjee, assured the Arab world that it would continue to support Palestinian aspirations. But he also said that India’s “bilateral relations with Israel are independent of our relations with Palestine.”2