India achieved independence on August 15, 1947. Israel was established barely nine months later on May 14, 1948. Both states were partitioned upon independence. Furthermore, both nations were governed by the British until their freedom in the late 1940s. Since independence, both countries have fought four wars with their neighbours and been in numerous other conflicts in between. India and Israel are both democracies and have survived in a sea of hostility, surrounded by implacable adversaries and a heavily militarised security environment. They have no conflict of interest, Israel trying to become primus inter pares in the Middle East and India in South Asia, while they share the common enemy of Islamic militancy. Despite these commonalities and convergences, counter-intuitively perhaps, India and the Jewish State remain on a formal footing.

History: Indo-Israeli relations started off on the wrong foot. Before independence, the Indian National Congress (INC) leadership refused to support a homeland for the Jewish people. Even in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru maintained their argument that there was no need to establish a nation based on race, religion or ethnicity and proclaimed a civic nationalism. Jews, they said, can be productive members of the societies from whence they came and did not need to eke out a separate state. This position came not from an ignorance of Western History but from their own unique predicament in India. Had Nehru or Gandhi accepted the principle of states based on ethnicity or religion, the dream of a united India could have shattered into a thousand pieces. Already, the Muslim League was causing the INC enough headache with their demand for a separate state for Muslims. Supporting Israel would have been seen as hypocritical in contrast to their opposition to the creation of Pakistan. Furthermore, there was nothing stopping the Sikhs or Marathas or a hundred other communities appealing to the same principle. Although political leaders across the spectrum stressed the importance of close political and social ties with Israel, Nehru’s commandeering presence won the day in the Lok Sabha and, as a result, India voted against the creation of Israel and against their admittance to the United Nations (UN) in May 1949.

As the years went by, the INC became more entrenched in its position and policy became dogma. In an effort to appease the Muslim vote (India has had a large Muslim population despite partition and is today the second largest Muslim country) and perhaps in an effort to use good relations with the Arab states to put pressure on Pakistan, India maintained its policy towards Israel.  Indian policy also ensured jobs for thousands of Indians in the Gulf, helping India to keep its foreign exchange reserves afloat. Despite recognising the Israeli state in 1950, full diplomatic relations had to wait another 42 years until the end of the Cold War. Ironically the first Janata Government did not change things either. India’s West Asia policy had become captive to its domestic requirements. Oddly, in an article in 2009, Daniel Pipes cited an extensive study conducted by the Israeli Ministry of External Affairs that showed India to be the most pro-Israel country in the world.

Despite being a democracy, the Indian state has chosen not to trust its citizens with information regarding the operations of the state in either domestic or foreign affairs. In an unquestionably criminal manner, India has kept its National Archives closed for the period after 1948 despite a 30-year rule for declassifying documents. However, from foreign sources, particularly Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman’s book, Every Spy a Prince, it can be safely deduced that India and Israel began to have covert relations with each other since the early 1970s. Israel may have supplied India with the powerful 160mm mortar and ammunition during the 1971 South Asian Crisis. Unwilling to publicly embrace Israel in fear of domestic Muslim reaction, India continued to deal with Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, in recognition of its failure to use Arab (and Muslim) pressure on Pakistan. “Acting widely as an alternative diplomatic service, the Mossad has opened doors and maintained relations with dozens of countries which prefer that these connections not be known. The Mossad simply gives the other nation an easy way out – receiving military, medical and agricultural advice from the overenthusiastic Israelis without risking economic or political boycotts of the Arab World…Clandestine cooperation is always based on common interests, leading to an exchange of information. For India and Israel, the common potential enemy was Pakistan – a Moslem nation committed to helping the Arab countries of the Middle East.” According to Harsh Pant, a scholar at King’s College, London, Israel also never hesitated to come to India’s defense, publicly and vigorously, in most of India’s major conflicts, including tacit help and support during its 1962 war with China and 1965 war with Pakistan.

End of the Cold War: The end of the Cold War was the beginning of a new era in Indo-Israeli relations. Many factors that had influenced India’s policy towards Israel had changed. First, the end of the Cold War eroded the political and ideological relevance of the Non-Aligned Movement. India’s sympathy towards the Soviet Union and Israel’s close relations with the US ceased to have much relevance. Second, the depressed oil prices in the early 1990s somewhat reduced India’s dependence on oil from Arab states. India had always worried that the Arab states would use oil as a bargaining chip to coerce India’s West Asia policy. Third, repeated pro-Pakistan resolutions on Kashmir by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) further encouraged India to re-evaluate its Middle East policy. clearly, 40 years of wooing the Islamic states had paid zero dividends. Fourth, after the Madrid Peace Conference of October 1991, the argument of annoying friendly Arab states and Muslims at home became irrelevant, as the Arabs, including the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), were themselves negotiating peace with Israel. Fifth, in the early 1990s, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism worsened the domestic and the regional security environment of India, and Delhi saw a common cause with Israel in this regard. Thus, India signalled its change of heart by withdrawing from the 1975 UN resolution that equated Zionism with racism.

Once the ice was broken, a new era of partnership between India and Israel began. Keeping a low profile, both countries worked hard to strengthen the institutional mechanism. Over a period of five years, India and Israel developed the vast institutional gamut of bilateral relations. The socio-cultural and political affinities between the two countries created a healthy atmosphere for improving ties. Thus, helped by fast changing international realities, the two countries moved rapidly to develop a many-faceted friendship. India and Israel first emphasized economic and cultural ties. These were rightly considered not only mutually beneficial, but also instruments to build confidence and bridge gaps on the political and strategic issues. After 1992, there was a flood of cultural interaction between the two countries. Meanwhile, many high-level visit exchanges, including the high-profile visits of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (1993) and President Ezer Weizman (1997), Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh (2000), Home Minister L. K. Advani (2000), and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (2003) took place. Israel celebrated with a fanfare, “Shalom India” as a mark to India’s fiftieth year of independence. India reciprocated by organizing many cultural events all over Israel as part of the celebration of the fifty years of Israeli independence. It is also important to note that Jews have been a part of India for well over a thousand years. The most distinctive aspect of the Indian Jewish experience is the complete absence of discrimination by the host majority. Jews have lived in India without any fear of persecution, a fact that has been well appreciated by Israel. Even though the Jewish population in India is estimated to be around 6,000 – following the emigration of over 25,000 to Israel between the 1950s and 1970s – the community’s contributions to India remain substantive.

An increasing number of Indian students at Israeli universities and Israeli students at Indian universities have created effective channels of better understanding between the two countries. In the recent past, Israel’s image in the Indian press underwent a positive change. Though the traditional pro-Arab (anti-Israel) class of Indian politicians, diplomats and intellectuals still exists, its influence has significantly declined in the past decade. The establishment of full diplomatic ties in 1992 also paved the way for greater economic cooperation between the two countries. Over 200 joint ventures were established in the spheres of engineering, ground water management, desalination, agro-industries and prevention of desertification, high-tech etc. Israeli investment in India increased from $0.36 million in 1992 to $1 billion in 1999. Both countries accorded ‘most favoured nation’ status to each other. Transport links and the financial and institutional infrastructure required to expand bilateral trade have also been developed rapidly. The volume of trade between the two countries grew from $202 million in 1992 to more than $1 billion in 2000 and is being continuously diversified.

The most immediate and obvious convergence of interests for India and Israel has been in the realm of military equipment, technology, and intelligence. While Israel gained access to India’s huge defence market, India’s lagging programmes (Main Battle Tank, Light Combat Aircraft, the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme) received a breath of life. Furthermore, India’s aging arsenal of Soviet-supplied weaponry desperately need upgrading and modernisation in face of the Pakistani acquisition of F-16s and constant Chinese modernisation of its Armed Forces. Since 1996, India has purchased from Israel a wide range of weapons systems, ranging from the Barak missile, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, high-tech sensors for border patrols, EL/M-2080 search acquisition and fire-control radar, and Dvora fast attack boats. India has also opted for electronic upgrades to  Su-30, MiG-27ML and Jaguar aircraft, as well as for Mi-35 helicopters. Other upgrades India has sought include MiG-21 Bis, T-72 tanks, 130mm artillery pieces, Ka-25 anti-submarine helicopters, and the Mi-8 assault helicopters. India has also expressed interest in the Israeli Phalcon AWACS system, the anti-radar harpy missile, Delilah II bombs, crystal maze bombs, Pechora III, Popeye beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles, the Arrow II anti-ballistic missile defence system, and the Green Pine radar. Israeli contractors now compete with Russian, European, and American firms for contracts in many other areas, such as assault rifles, self-propelled guns, satellite programs, air defense systems, electronic fencing, ammunition, vision gadgets, evacuation and rescue devices, and small arms for the Indian security forces. In return, Indo-Israeli cooperation has allowed Israel to use the Indian ocean to test its missile systems and in 2008, India launched TecSAR, a highly advanced reconnaissance satellite, for Israel.

India and Israel have also started cooperating more closely on the terror front. India has found it increasingly beneficial to learn from Israel’s experience in dealing with terrorism since Israel has also long suffered from cross-border terrorism. And the terrorism that both India and Israel face comes not only from disaffected groups within their territories but it is also aided and abetted by the neighboring states, mostly under non-democratic regimes, increasingly capable of transferring weapons of mass destruction to the terrorist organizations. States such as Pakistan in South Asia, or Iran and Syria in Middle East, have long used terror as an instrument of their foreign policies. There are, thus, distinct structural similarities in the kind of threat that India and Israel face from terrorism. It is also important to note that when the extremist mullahs call upon their followers to take up arms in support of an Islamic jihad, their topmost exhortations have always been the “liberation” of all of mandatory Palestine, Kashmir, and the annihilation of the United States.

Though cooperation in the realm of defense and anti-terrorism has driven India and Israel closer, the two states are also making concerted attempts to diversify this relationship. The emergence of India and Israel as industrialized and technologically advanced states makes their cooperation on a range of fields meaningful and mutually beneficial. There has been a six-fold increase in India’s trade with Israel in the last decade with India becoming Israel’s second-largest trading partner in Asia in non-military goods and services. India’s non-military trade with Israel reached $1.27 billion in 2002 from just $202 million in 1992, which is still not commensurate with the vast potential. New areas of cooperation have also been identified by the two states, including the agricultural sector, farm research, science, public health, information technology, telecommunications, and cooperation in space. India and Israel have decided to set up a joint economic committee to identify new measures to stimulate trade and a joint committee on agriculture to stimulate greater cooperation in that sector. Israeli industry is keen to take advantage of synergies with India in various areas like telecom, information technology, and biotechnology. Also, an Indo-Israeli CEOs forum comprising senior business heads from both countries has also been established to deliberate on trade and economic matters. Israel has offered to help India with venture capital funding for communications and information technology projects, advanced agricultural technologies, and aerospace engineering. In the agricultural sector, cooperation in areas like afforestation in arid areas, desertification, pollution, water conservation, recycling of wastewater, low-cost technologies for pollution control, and environmental monitoring methods have been envisaged by the two states. Indian companies are also hoping to sell more chemical and pharmaceutical products in Israel and invest in joint ventures there to gain better access to markets in Europe and the United States, which have free trade agreements with Israel.

Indo-Israeli relations blossomed during the BJP government (1998-2004) and were accorded a place in the spotlight but have again been put on the back burner once Congress took over. As the BJP saw it, following a pro-Arab policy could neither win over the support and loyalty of Indian Muslims nor the goodwill of Arab states. In fact, these policies have backfired and, for a long time, Arabs were allowed to influence India’s policies in the region. Difficulty to admit their failure over the Israel issue should not be a reason for the INC (and its allies) to allow this vital relation to wither away. Other than immediate defence interests, vibrant Indo-Israeli relations hold the potential to shape the Middle East and South Asia in the new century.

Constraints and Options:  The biggest obstacles to meaningful relations between these natural allies are India’s relationship with Iran and Israel’s flirtation with China. India’s rising energy needs has meant that India look to Tehran in recent years for natural gas. Also, American sanctions on Iran has created opportunities for Indian companies in various fields. However, Iran’s adamant refusal to roll back its nuclear programme has put the country on Israel’s watch list, irrespective of Iran’s motives. Israeli cooperation with India may be curtailed if Israel feels that India’s ties with Iran could adversely affect Israel’s security. Similarly, Israel’s assistance to China in modernising its military has made India wary of Israel’s nonchalant commercial opportunism. Although China does not presently pose a direct threat to Israeli interests, it is very much within the crosshairs of New Delhi and India is naturally suspicious of any state that shares such good relations, however opportunistic, with its enemy. It is, however, ironic that China is Tehran’s supplier of missile technology and nuclear supplies as well as a known merchant in conventional weaponry throughout the Middle East. Furthermore, India worries that technology transfers to China may end up in the hands of the Pakistani military.

Seeing India as the emerging power of the 21st century, Jerusalem needs to take into account India’s overall strategic objectives in the Middle East as well as South Asia, which might not always coincide with Jerusalem’s. Israeli leaders also need to give more weight to New Delhi’s concerns over the supply of advanced weapon systems to China. Meeting these concerns may yield Israel India’s support at the United Nations, where India is a strong contender for a permanent seat in the expanded Security Council. Similarly, India can play a constructive role in further legitimizing Israel’s acceptance on the Asian continent and may be accepted as a neutral player with more credibility than the United States or Israel in negotiations with Iran. Delhi-Jerusalem strategic ties can further be strengthened on the pattern of the Israeli-Turkish relationship, though recently, Jerusalem’s ties to Ankara have been strained as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi have increasingly looked to create a place for Turkey among the region’s Arab states and have turned away from Europe for a multitude of reasons. It is difficult to see what shape the Middle East will take in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions, but improved ties between India and Israel will be profitable for both, regardless of the outcome in the region. If the new Iraqi government maintains its secular credentials and emulates Turkey, it may also reach out to Israel and rekindle old ties with India. For those who believe in the importance of a balance of power, such a strategic triangle could provide stability and security to world’s two most turbulent regions – South Asia and the Middle East.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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