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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Indo-Israeli Relations: A Quest for Great-Power Status Since 1991

Filed under: Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 28, Numbers 3–4


States seek power and do whatever ensures their survival in the anarchical system. A state seeks power because it does not know other states’ intentions toward it. Moreover, there is no higher authority that a state can turn to in the event of war or conflict.2 Thus, in a self-help, anarchical system, states are bound to ensure their security and hence survival by augmenting their power.

Given India’s geographic position and history of bloody Islamic invasion and colonization, as well as wars with hostile neighbors, augmenting military power remains the supreme priority for the Indian leadership. It was to achieve this supreme priority that the Indian leadership chose to forge strong diplomatic relations with militarily powerful nations like the Soviet Union, the United States, and Israel.

Israel, however, occupies a unique place in the process of India’s foreign policymaking.  Owing to geostrategic factors in general and domestic factors in particular, the Indian leadership remained hesitant to extend full support to Israel. Hence from time to time India exhibited a mixed response toward the Israeli cause, and often even voted in favor of UN resolutions that went against Israel’s interests.3

Despite India’s reluctance to extend full diplomatic support to Israel, Israel remains India’s most trustworthy ally and the only country that, with its diplomatic and technological might, can play an instrumental role in India’s quest for power status in South Asia.

Power and National Interest: A Political Imperative

In 1848 the twice-serving British prime minister Lord Palmerston was quoted as saying, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”4

States make and unmake alliances according to the benefits that arise from doing so. The formation of alliances is not based on emotions but, rather, on realist motives.

India’s diplomatic relations with Israel, however, are not guided by national interests alone; shared interests, shared values, and shared challenges are just as important for both nations. Both of them have firm faith in democratic ideals, and both face the same essential challenge: Islamist terrorism.

India’s diplomatic relations with Israel are an amalgam of realism and idealism, and the same is evidenced by India’s recognition of Israel and, at the same time, support for the Palestinian cause. India’s balanced approach to the Middle East conflict was a classic example of what we call pragmatism. India maintained equidistance from Israel and Palestine, but with a palpably greater affinity for Israel. In 1946 Jawaharlal Nehru  informed the world that India’s foreign policy would pursue its national interest while maintaining its hard-won independence.5 Moreover, India was guided by domestic imperatives that the newly formed nation-state prioritized over transnational imperatives.

For a newly independent but backward nation like India, entering the realm of power politics guided solely by realism could have thwarted socioeconomic progress  at home.6 Thus Nehru’s adoption of nonalignment as a guiding principle of India’s foreign policy was brilliant. As a pacifist and internationalist, Nehru summarily rejected the role of human nature and of structure in international politics.

The structural constraints within the international system also bring to the fore another factor central to India’s foreign policy. Kenneth Waltz maintains that states have an incentive to gain power at their rivals’ expense.7 Great powers behave aggressively, and the potential victims usually balance against the aggressor and resist its effort to gain power. China’s approach to border issues causes India, as a potential victim of that approach, to balance against China, for balancing can, as Waltz argues, contain aggression.8

The stance of nonalignment was chosen to buy more time for development at the domestic level. It was in no sense intended to keep India aloof from world politics. Before it could exercise power in world politics, India needed considerable time to address various challenges such as poverty, illiteracy, a deficient health system, technological backwardness, social cohesion, and so on. Notwithstanding such major challenges at the domestic level, from time to time India demonstrated its power.

No country is immune from power struggle and hence from power politics. A newly independent India needed power to secure its borders and play a major role in world affairs. The India of 1947 was a weak state in perhaps all regards except its burdensomely huge population and vast territory.

In such a situation, engaging in conventional power politics was out of the question as it could have turned fatal; power politics by other means was the only way to attract the world’s attention. Thus Nehru adeptly used diplomatic and ideological means to demonstrate India’s power. And it was out of ideological and diplomatic considerations that India decided not to join either bloc, and also not to recognize the state of Israel for almost two years after its establishment. Having recognized Israel, though the recognition was qualified, Prime Minister Nehru stated, “We would have [recognized Israel] long ago, because Israel is a fact. We refrained because of our desire not to offend the sentiments of our friends in the Arab countries.”9

The delay in recognizing Israel was deliberate; India was not in a position to compromise its vital interests in the Arab world. In addition, Israel’s diplomatic proximity to the United States deterred India, unwilling to side with either bloc, from recognizing Israel.

Although the recognition was belated, India’s policy toward Israel was never definitive, and recognizing it at some point remained an option. Out of realist considerations, India recognized Israel in 1950, and in 1952 it agreed to the opening of an Israeli consulate in Bombay. In 1955 India invited Israel to the Bandung Conference. Nevertheless, Nehru, cautiously watching political developments in West Asia, was in no haste to extend full diplomatic support to Israel. Nehru wanted to maintain a semblance of balance in India’s West Asia policy. Both he and his close adviser Krishna Menon favored keeping diplomatic options open with both Arab states and Israel.10

With the end of the Nehru era following his death in 1964 came the second phase of India’s foreign policy under the stewardship of Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. The scholar Sumit Ganguly describes this period as one of strategic dependence on the Soviet Union, particularly after 1971.11

The second phase of Indian foreign policy was characterized by a growing tendency to realism. In August 1970, while paying tribute to her father’s ideal of nonalignment, Mrs. Gandhi asserted that the problems of developing countries needed to be addressed “not merely by idealism, not merely by sentimentalism, but by very clear thinking and hard-headed analysis of the situation.”12 On the international stage, the realist turn was evident as India veered away from nonalignment toward alignment with the Soviet Union, marked by the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship.13 Emboldened by this treaty, India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974 in response to a nuclear test by China at Lop Nor. The incorporation of Sikkim into India in 1975 was yet another assertive move in reaction to Chinese belligerence. The shift in India’s foreign policy from idealism to realism became more apparent when India suppressed the separatist Khalistan movement, which resulted in Prime Minister Gandhi’s assassination. In sum, the era dominated by Indira Gandhi was characterized by lip service to anti-imperialism, Third World solidarity, and nonalignment, but was marked in practice by a move toward power politics.14

The brief governance by the Janata Party also manifested India’s quest for power. In 1979 Prime Minister Morarji Desai secretly invited the then Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, and they held talks along with Foreign Minister A. B. Vajpayee on establishing full diplomatic relations as well as an Israeli embassy in New Delhi, or at least upgrading the Israeli consulate in Bombay.15

1991: A Tectonic Shift in India’s Policy toward Israel

The end of the Cold War had a huge impact on India’s foreign policy, ushering in an array of global prospects and challenges. On the one hand, the integration of the global economy brought economic opportunities; on the other, it posed an immense threat to national security stemming from global terrorism.16

Against this backdrop, Indian foreign policy shifted from nonalignment to alignment, the decades-long distrust toward the United States was abandoned for the sake of the national interest, and regional concerns were given priority over global concerns. In this context, Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao introduced  the Look East policy; India now focused on Southeast Asia, which it had long neglected during the Cold War period.17 The Look East policy was in fact a move to gain diplomatic influence against China in Southeast Asia, thereby bolstering India’s status as a regional power. Initiated in 1991, it marked a strategic shift in India’s outlook on the world.18  While Narasimha Rao attributed due importance to neighbors, he took the huge foreign policy leap of establishing full-fledged diplomatic ties with Israel on January 29, 1992, which resulted in the opening of embassies in New Delhi and Tel Aviv.

Vajpayee’s tenure as prime minister was marked by major success as India for the first time demonstrated an assertive posture to the world by conducting nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1998. Despite the initial surge of hostility and a range of sanctions from the United States and the other great powers, the international community grudgingly accepted India as a de facto nuclear-weapons state.19 Vajpayee also furthered the legacy of Narasimha Rao by reinvigorating the relations with Israel. During his tenure, in 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon paid an official three-day visit to India to strengthen the two countries’ ties.

Sharon’s historic visit to India came in the midst of a diplomatic improvement  between the two countries that began in 1999. That year the Kargil War between India and Pakistan proved to be a turning point. Israel emerged as an important ally and source of military support, providing India with ammunition when Pakistan infiltrated the Kargil-Dras region in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir.20

Indo-Israeli relations reached a new height when Narendra Modi became the Indian prime minister in 2014. Pundits now describe the situation between the two countries as a diplomatic renaissance. Cooperation with Israel — conducted secretly by India throughout most of its history — has now gone public. In a pronounced departure from the past, Modi has openly and enthusiastically embraced the Jewish state.21

Modi cherishes a personal connection with Israel. As chief minister of the state of Gujarat, he visited Tel Aviv in 2006 and spoke glowingly about what India could learn from Israel. Notably, Israel welcomed Modi at a time when he was not welcomed in many countries because of his purported role in failing to stem communal riots in 2002.

In September 2014, the Indian and Israeli premiers met at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “the sky is the limit” for the two countries.22 In what could be termed a tectonic shift in India’s foreign policy toward Israel, Modi paid it a three-day visit. The visit was historic not only because Modi was the first sitting Indian prime minister to come to the Jewish state but also because important agreements were signed that stood to benefit both countries in the long run.

Defense Cooperation

Most crucial to both nations is the defense and security cooperation between them. Such cooperation with Israel remains the top priority for India; only if it is militarily capable can it contain the threat emanating from hostile neighbors, as well as from terror groups and extremism within the country. Moreover, India’s quest for power can only be fulfilled with the help of cutting-edge Israeli defense hardware and technology.

Israel has always provided crucial assistance when India needed it most – during crises or when other sources were not available. Be it the India-China War of 1962, the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, and even the 1999 Kargil conflict, Israel always stood by India and provided military and intelligence aid. This decades-long friendly orientation in times of crisis makes Israel a reliable ally and defense partner.23

India’s arms trade with Israel has significantly increased in the post-1991 period. The demise of the Soviet Union prompted India to seek an alliance that could meet its need for weapons.  Moreover, aging Soviet weapons had to be upgraded to meet the new challenges. In such a situation, Israel emerged as a reliable ally when it came to answering India’s need for arms, technology transfer, and co-production.

The total value of the two countries’ arms trade over the past decade is estimated at around $10 billion.24 With the delivery in May 2009 and March 2010 of the Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), which India mounted on Russian-built Ilyushin II-76s, Israel emerged as one of the largest arms exporters to India. Today Israel is India’s third largest arms supplier (at an overall  estimated value of $1 billion).25

Indo-Israeli cooperation increased dramatically in 2014 with Modi’s election as prime minister.  From his election in May to November of that year, Israel exported $662 million worth of weapons and other defense items to India. This was greater than the total Israeli exports to India during the previous three years combined.26

Israel’s defense establishment is actively participating in the Make in India initiative and has formed a number of joint ventures with Indian partners. Israel’s Elbit group has launched some joint ventures with Indian companies, such as Adani-Elbit Advanced Systems India, the aim of which is to manufacture UAVs in India.27

Although many in India believe that India’s relations with Israel are confined to defense cooperation, they go beyond that sphere. Besides the billions of dollars in defense deals, India and Israel share a common strategic agenda. Indeed, the first paragraph of the India-Israel Joint Statement issued during Netanyahu’s visit to India last January states that the relationship has become a “strategic partnership.” As Modi explained: Israel and India live in complex geographies.… We are aware of strategic threats to regional peace and stability.… Prime Minister Netanyahu and I agreed to do much more together to protect our strategic interests.”28

For both India and Israel, living in complex geographies requires having the power and capabilities to meet diverse challenges. Hence, the two nations’ striving for power cannot be understood as stemming from imperial ambitions. Like Israel, India needs power to ensure its survival, and viewing India’s aspiration for power in terms of expansionism would be seriously mistaken. Both India and Israel are compelled to augment their power by structural constraints. Thus India’s quest for power is neither inconsistent with democratic ideals nor international morality.


Indo-Israeli bilateral relations have grown significantly in recent years, with the two nations’ interests converging on a range of issues. At its heart, however, this relationship is still driven by close defense ties and recognition of a common foe in Islamist terrorism. Although both sides are trying to broaden the base of the relationship, significant constraints remain, preventing it from reaching its full potential. Both sides will have to navigate the relationship carefully through these constraints. The current international environment, however, is particularly favorable to a deepening of Indo-Israeli ties. Whether the sides will make the most of this opportunity depends ultimately on political will in both states. The people of India and Israel have a long history of civilizational contact, and it is only natural for the two states to cooperate more closely on issues ranging from defense and counterterrorism to trade and cultural exchanges. Significant mutual benefits can contribute to both India’s and Israel’s quest to survive and thrive.

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  1. Mearsheimer, John (2014) The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. London: W. W. Norton & Company p.17
  2. Ibid
  5. Speech by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the United Nations General Assembly, New York, December 20, 1956.
  6. Rana, A.P. (1976) The Imperatives of Nonalignment: A Conceptual Study of India’s Foreign Policy Strategy in the Nehru Period. Delhi: Macmillan
  8. ibid
  9. Kumaraswamy, P. R. (January 1995). “India’s Recognition of Israel, September 1950”. Middle Eastern Studies. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 31 (1): 124–138.
  10. Bajpai, kant; Basit, saira; Krishnappa, V. (March 2014) India’s Grand Strategy: History, Theory, Cases. New Delhi: Routledge. P.
  11. Sumit Ganguly, India’s Foreign Policy: Retrospect and Prospect, Oxford; Edition edition (29 November 2011)
  12. Appadorai, (1985) Select Documents on India’s Foreign Policy and Relations 1947- 1972 Vol.1. New Delhi: Oxford University Press p. 62
  13. Rohan Mukherjee and David M Malone (2011), Indian Foreign Policy and Contemporary Security Challenges. London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs,89.
  14. Ibid
  15. National Herald, May17,1980
  16. Chiriyankandath, James(2007) Realigning India: Indian foreign policy after the Cold War.Abingdon: Taylor & Francis
  18. Thongkholal Haokip, “India’s Look East Policy: Its Evolution and Approach,” South Asian Survey, Vol. 18, No.2 (September 2011), pp. 239-257
  22. “Israeli Phalcon Reaching India on Monday,” NDTV,May 24, 2009; “India to Get Phalcon AWACS on Thursday,” Times of India, March 24, 2010.