India: Israel’s Promising New Friend

A relationship that’s bound to flourish.

For Israelis, it is refreshing to know that Israel has an important new friend, India.  In the midst of a wave of terror engulfing Israel, orchestrated by both the Hamas leadership and the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, it has resulted in the random knifing of Israeli-Jews by Arab-Palestinian youths.  And, while there appears to be deafening silence at the United Nations, the president of the world’s largest democracy, India, will be paying a state visit to Israel. 

India’s President Pranab Mukherjee will arrive in Israel on Tuesday (October 13, 2015) for a four day official visit, the first of its kind by an Indian president in the Jewish state.  Following his visit to Jordan he will fly to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv and proceed to Ramallah to meet with the Palestinian Authority leadership.  In Israel, President Mukherjee will be the official guest of Israel’s President Reuben Rivlin.  Mukherjee will be bringing a top academic delegation with him.  During his stay, Mukherjee will meet with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein and Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the Opposition Labor party.  On Wednesday, the Indian president will address the Israeli Knesset.  Later, President Rivlin will host Mukherjee at a special state dinner in the Presidential residence, with 120 specially invited guests.  On his final day in Israel, Mukherjee will receive an honorary doctorate.  Mukherjee hopes to signs three large agreements with Israel pertaining to water, energy, and education.

When, in July, 2015, the UN Human Rights Council voted to approve a report criticizing Israel for its alleged conduct in the latest Gaza war, only the U.S. voted against it.  What was surprising however turned out to be India’s abstention.  For the first time in a major anti-Israel vote, India did not vote with the Arabs.  India’s abstention was a reflection of Israel’s realignment in its international relations.  After decades of Jerusalem focusing its diplomatic and trade efforts on Europe and America, Israel is pivoting toward Asia.  The payoff came during Israel’s ‘Protective Edge’ operation in Gaza, when the Indian Foreign Ministry issued a balanced statement that expressed “alarm over the civilian loss of life,” but at the same time voiced its concern over “cross-border provocations resulting from (Hamas’) rocket attacks.” In recent years India has been a key player in the Non-Aligned Movement - a body of states that was founded by Marshall Tito (of Yugoslavia) Nehru, and included Egypt’s President Abdul Nasser.  As a result, India voted automatically for the Palestinians and against Israel in international forums.

Common features exist between India and Israel. Both have been ruled by Britain and endured partition. (India became a majority Hindu state and Pakistan a Muslim state.  The Palestine partition sought to create a Jewish state and an Arab-Muslim state, which the Arabs rejected and chose instead to destroy the Jewish state.) Another common feature has been India’s war with its Muslim sub-continent neighbor, Pakistan.  In the Kashmir conflict with Pakistan, India sought Arab support.  Yet, New Delhi covertly accepted critical intelligence and military assistance from Israel during its wars with China in 1962 and with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.  India has been however, traditionally a pro-Arab state.  In 1947 it voted against the Palestine Partition Plan, and refrained from diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992.

India’s foreign policy throughout the decades maintained a close relationship with the Arab states to offset Arab solidarity with Islamic Pakistan.  That naturally precluded a close relationship with Israel. Also, India’s almost 200 million Muslims (second largest Muslim population in the world) and 7 million Indians employed in the Arab Gulf states necessitated lowering the profile of its relationship with Israel.  Little was said about the close security and defense relationship between Israel and India that has developed since 1992.

Al-Jazeera reported (July 10, 2015) that “India’s deepening defense ties with Israel is one factor that has brought the two countries closer. The Asian giant is Israel’s biggest defense buyer, spending $10bn in the past decade.”  Al-Jazeera quoted Professor Vivek Mishra of the Jawaharlal Nehru University as saying, “If there is a single factor that can be listed for India’s growing bonhomie with Israel, it is because of India’s growing need in the defense sector and steps against terrorism.”

The election of the conservative Bharatiya Janata (BJP) Party leader Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India on May 26, 2014 changed the hitherto “under the rug” relationship between India and Israel.  Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat state visited Israel in 2006.  He managed to attract billions in Israeli investments in Gujarat, and as a Hindu nationalist, he saw in Israel an ally in fighting radical Islam. As such, he set out to balance India’s relations between Israel and the Palestinians, which was solidly behind the Palestinians. The way the current Indian government views things is rather simple and profound at the same time. New Delhi claims their Middle East policy is based on two legs that do not interfere with one another:  one leg seeks to advance their ties with the Arab world while the other strengthens relations with Israel.  The Indian government says it is not a zero sum game.  

Since the diplomatic relations between India and Israel were established in 1992, trade has risen from $200 million to over $5bn in 2014-15.  The Times of Israel reported (April 17, 2015) that “Indian multinationals have made long-term investments to the tune of hundreds of millions in Israeli start-ups eco-system.  Indian technology firms, operating in a competitive global market, see Israel as a destination for world class talent and for acquiring cutting-edge innovation.” Israeli institutions of higher education such as the IDC Herzliya and Tel Aviv University have established ties with leading Indian universities and research institutions to create exchange programs and joint research projects.  Times of Israel further reports that “Flagship programs like the ones offered by Israel-Asia Centre and Tel Aviv University are training the next generation of Indian corporate and technology leaders, with special focus on women’s entrepreneurship.”

According to Ynet-News (July 5, 2015) in November, 2014, during a meeting between then President Shimon Peres and PM Modi, the latter said that he was “Very impressed with Israel.  India appreciates the contribution of the State of Israel to the world of advanced technology; Israel combines innovation, creative ideas, and bravery that have solved several problems around the world. I personally experienced Israel’s great abilities when I led the state of Gujarat, and I opened a technological greenhouse center, with the participation of several Israeli companies that were the best in their field.”

There is little doubt about the value that both the Indian and Israeli governments attribute to the strategic relationship between Jerusalem and New Delhi.  At the same time, the personal chemistry between PM Modi and PM Netanyahu helped boost the warmer relationship. Netanyahu was among the first to congratulate Modi following his landslide victory in the 2014 elections. In September, 2014, the two Prime Ministers met at the UN General Assembly in New York.  On that occasion, Netanyahu declared that the “sky is the limit” with India.  Modi reciprocated a few months later, sending Chanukah greetings on twitter to Netanyahu in Hebrew.  Last March, Modi again twitted in Hebrew to congratulate his “friend Bibi” on his reelection.

As long as Modi and his BJP party govern India, the relationship between New Delhi and Jerusalem is bound to flourish.  Beyond that, it is hard to see a sharp reversal by India given the state of the world, and in particular the upsurge in global Islamic terrorism.