When Narendra Modi visited Israel last week, he became the first Indian prime minister to set foot on Israeli soil. Modi’s visit and the ecstatic reception he received in Israel reflected a little-discussed fact: the relationship between India and Israel is among the world’s most unusual major-country partnerships.
India recognized the newly established state of Israel in 1950. But for the next four decades, despite Israel’s many overtures, Delhi refused to establish formal diplomatic relations with the country. After the two governments established formal ties in 1992, their bilateral trade and military ties took off: by 2016, annual trade between the two countries had risen from $200 million in 1992 to $4 billion, and Israel had become India’s second-largest defense partner. Yet those changes did not translate into a close, friendly partnership. India often opposed Israel in the United Nations, and it avoided referring to Israel as a strategic partner—a term that is often used to publicly signal the deepening of ties. Only one Israeli prime minister has officially visited India: Ariel Sharon, whose 2003 tour became a public-relations disaster after large crowds protested his visit and an Indian opposition politician described the Israeli official as “the leader of one of the most racist, colonial regimes in existence today.”
What explains Delhi’s reluctance to embrace a country that, like India, is a democracy, has struggled with terrorism, and faces hostility from Muslim-majority states? The answer can be traced to identity issues, which along with material and strategic interests have helped shape the relationship between the two states. India’s and Israel’s historic perceptions of colonial ideology and religious nationalism are at the root of their longstanding divergence. Despite Modi’s visit and his reputation as an anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist, these differences explain why an immediate transformation in bilateral ties is probably not forthcoming.
The experience of British colonial domination, the misery of Partition, and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 engendered in many Indian leaders a strong opposition to colonialism, an aversion
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