- In the past two years, India and Israel appear to march to a common script: both have authoritarian leaders, both have annexed territories populated by those who do not wish to remain within the state.
India’s position on the current Israeli-Palestine (Gaza) conflict is an interesting one. While the government has criticized the eviction of Arabs from their homes – the spark of the conflict, India has also criticized Gazan rocket strikes but made no mention of Israel’s disproportionate response which has resulted in hundreds of deaths in Gaza. This balancing act, or contradiction, underlines the shift in Indian foreign policy from a principled one under Nehru and later Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, to one of pragmatic self-interested behavior over the past three decades.
As early as 1937, the Indian National Congress had declared its support for the Palestinian cause in the British mandate of the same name. In 1948, the newly independent Indian state voted against the formation of an Israeli state, viewing it as a colonial transplant into what was a historically Arab territory, since Zionism was of European origin. While India did recognize Israel in 1950, it did not establish full diplomatic relations until early 1992. This was in keeping with India’s stance on Israel’s acquisition of territory as being illegal, whether it was the territory seized from Arabs in 1948 (in excess of the UN partition plan for the new state of Israel), in 1967 in the aftermath of the war, or later as bits of the West Bank were taken up by settlements.
During the Suez Crisis, when Israel attacked Egypt along with Britain and France, India voted against the aggression and made common cause with the anti-colonial posturing of Egyptian leader Nasser. India’s motives appear to have been a mix of principle – support for Palestinians as the subjugated people as well as a view of Israel being a colonial configuration, as well as some pragmatism – the increasing need to have a good relationship with Arab and Muslim countries for oil and keeping in mind Indian Muslim sentiment on the issue. Over time the Indian “tilt” towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War hardened positions. This meant that India recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole representative of all Palestinians in 1974 and Palestine as a state in 1988.
With the end of the Cold War and the special relationship with the Soviet Union that yielded defense weaponry at affordable terms came a more pragmatic policy. A Congress government normalized relations with Israel in 1992 with an eye on diversifying weapons procurement and broader foreign policy options. Another calculation might have been that a better relationship with Israel might help ties with the United States, with which a significant and incremental economic engagement began in the 1990s. However, India has continuously voiced support for a two-state solution and spoken in support of Palestinian concerns to the consternation of Israelis.
The Game Changer
The biggest game changer in the Indian position appears to be the rise of Hindu nationalism and its political weight in the form of the current BJP led governments since 1998 and especially the Modi government since 2014. Over the past seven years, Indo-Israeli ties have deepened significantly. In 2017 Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu in turn visited India next year. From being outside India’s orbit, Israel has now become the largest supplier of defense equipment to India and is on an incremental track.
Most of all, Israel and India’s BJP may have common ground in a distrust of Muslims (since few Muslims globally have accepted the Israeli state as anything but an occupying force on Arab land). This found expression most recently in 2019 when the Indian Consul-General in New York addressed a group of Kashmiri Hindus and expressed admiration for the “settlements” model of Israel and went on to venture that that could be a way for Hindus to return to Kashmir. This was troubling on many fronts. At one stroke a government official undercut India’s support to Palestinians by accepting the Israeli settlements in the West Bank (a very thorny issue since that is the primary reason for Israeli reluctance to cede control over that Arab majority area), as well as any notion of balanced behavior in an internal dispute between different groups of Indians.
It should be noted though, that the BJP government has continued to support the Palestinian cause and Modi visited Ramallah and the Palestinian state as well on his Israel visit. If anything, Israel has found India’s behavior not supportive enough and a Brookings Institution report mentioned how for Israelis, “India has treated Israel like a mistress—happy to engage intimately in private, but hesitant to acknowledge the relationship in public.”
There is no question that Israel has helped India with defense equipment. This goes back to 1962 and later conflicts when India found itself in urgent need of defense weapons and equipment and often could not get them soon or had sanctions imposed by the superpowers. Israel was seeking an ally or at least hoping for recognition and normalized relations and was happy to help India. The relationship has fructified since then and in 1999 during the Kargil Conflict, India received UAVs and later had help in upgrading older MiG fighters. Weapons imports from Israel increased by 175 per cent from 2015 onwards, placing Israel as India’s second largest source of defense procurement. This includes purchases of anti-tank missiles, naval missiles, as well as a joint venture to produce small arms.
In the past two years, the two countries appear to march to a common script: both have authoritarian leaders, both have annexed territories populated by those who do not wish to remain within the state (Modi’s downgrading of Kashmir to two union territories and ending Article 370 is a few steps behind Israel in the West Bank), and both states have brought about laws that discriminate against a minority segment of their population. As a Foreign Policy article noted, the two countries “alliance” was a model for illiberal leaders.
For right-wing Hindu nationalists, Israel appears as a successful example to emulate. The Israeli state, in their view, has triumphed over Muslim opposition and established a Jewish state and has succeeded in wearing down the opposition to its existence or recognition thereof by an aggressive posture and cultivation of the United States. In this approach, they see a model for India’s future, with a possibility of a Hindu state – the declared objective of many Hindu nationalists, and the subsequent disempowerment of minorities – read Muslims. This is evident from many hashtags such as #IndiasupportsIsrael that arose within the last few weeks in India as well as trending hashtags about Palestinians being terrorists.
Granted that the Indian government will not want to alienate the Arab (and Muslim) world completely. After all, India has studiously cultivated Iran in a mutually beneficial relationship in returning securing support for its position on Kashmir. And oil dependency makes the task of alienating Arab states risky. However, given that some Arab states have recognized Israel in the past few months – Sudan, Bahrein, UAE – and more may do so, a stronger relationship with Israel may well be on the cards.
Israel and India enjoy an incrementally growing relationship that is not just confined to defense trade. Both states also cooperate in the agricultural sector, where Israel has made strides in agriculture, despite only 20 percent of the land being arable. Tourist trade between India and Israel has surged in the last decade with close to 50,000 tourists traveling in each direction. The result has been a highly favorable image of Israel in India – a Israeli government survey in 2009 found that Indians viewed Israel more favorably (58%) than Americans did (56%).
While these advantages doubtless make for a compelling case for an India-Israel partnership, India risks losing the moral ground on which much of its foreign policy was founded. The first half-century of Indian existence saw tireless support for anti-colonial movements and in favor of the right of oppressed people to be free. Whether non-alignment, or opposition to apartheid South Africa, or a stand against the arbitrary nature of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, India was known as the champion of principled foreign policy making. That risks being set aside if pragmatism trumps principle in the case of the Palestinians now.
Great powers do not ascend by wealth and military might alone. The addition of soft power heightens their appeal to the world. India possesses much soft power through its film industries, through its cultivation of diverse developing states and peoples across the globe, and by its principled but balanced support for causes like Palestine. Any move towards jettisoning these principles will dilute India’s soft power, and consequently its international reputation and standing. Unlike China and Russia which are autocracies unconcerned with their image, India has been a democratic country whose popularity has been disproportionately greater than its wealth or military wherewithal. India’s current leadership would do well to consider that when looking at its policy towards the vexatious problems of the Israel/ Palestine issue.
Dr. Milind Thakar is a Professor of International Relations in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Indianapolis.