Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Indo-Israeli Defense Cooperation in the Twenty-First Century

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Indo-Israeli Defense Cooperation in the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt


Since India and Israel first established diplomatic relations in 1992, defense cooperation has played a major role in bilateral ties, with India emerging as one of Israel's largest arms clients. Furthermore, this relationship has strengthened since the Hinduoriented Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of India came into power in 1998. , The BJP emphasized the threat of Islamist terrorism, thus making Israel a natural ally. Just as Israel faces tremendous security threats from Iran, due to its nuclear program and support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hizballah, India remains concerned with the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and Pakistan-based terrorist activities. The U.S. decision to relax sanctions against India-which were imposed after the 1998 Pokhran nuclear test-also eased the way for closer ties between India and Israel. In addition, its subsequent international war on terror after September 11 created a political environment suitable for further bilateral cooperation.1

This paper focuses on the current Indo- Israeli defense cooperation and its constraints. The article begins with a brief historical account of this relationship, followed by a discussion of its progression into the defense arena in the late 1990s under the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Subsequently, it examines the magnitude of the more recent defense cooperation under a new Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Finally, this paper attempts to examine the importance of factors constraining defense cooperation.


After cool relations for almost four decades, India and Israel established full ambassadorial level diplomatic relations in 1992. It was a late coming together of two ancient peoples who had both emerged from colonial rule in the same era. Several historical factors hindered early normalization of the relationship, the most prominent of which were the policies adopted by Indian leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.2 Their traditional support for the Arabs in the conflict in Palestine and Nehru's Non-Alignment foreign policy hardly favored close relations with the Jewish state.3 This was partly due to the fact that India had the largest Muslim minority population in the world.C

The animosity toward Israel was reflected in India's vote in the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947, against the partition resolution that led to the establishment of Israel. Only in September 1950 did India grant de jure recognition to Israel, followed by the opening of a consulate in Bombay in 1953. Yet these steps did not lead to any improvement in relations. India's closeness with the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and its commitment to the Non-Alignment movement, as well as the significant influence of its sizeable Muslim population on India's domestic politics, reinforced the coolness toward Israel.

Moreover, India's stance toward Israel throughout the Cold War was based upon an anti-Western and anti-imperialist worldview, which was shared by the Arabs and the Muslim world.4 In addition, Israel's intimacy with the United States in the 1960s was loathed by the Indian government, which was at the time suspicious of American foreign policy.5

So strong was India's opposition that even Israel's covert military assistance to supply arms and ammunition to India during the 1962 and 1965 wars with China and Pakistan bore no fruit. Other instances, such as Israel's supply of 160 mm mortar and ammunition to India during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, as well as the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, did little to change India's standpoint. Relations between the two states remained unsurprisingly icy into the 1980s.

However, the end of the Cold War in 1991 brought a wind of change. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, India's main diplomatic and strategic ally during the Cold War, India was "forced to reorient its foreign policy to accommodate the changing international milieu. …

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