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Israel à la Modi

Halvah with cardamom ice cream is back on the foreign policy menu

P.R. Kumaraswamy
January 26, 2022
Haim Zach/Israel Government Press Office
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Nov. 1, 2021Haim Zach/Israel Government Press Office
Haim Zach/Israel Government Press Office
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Nov. 1, 2021Haim Zach/Israel Government Press Office

On the sidelines of the COP26 climate summit last fall, the prime ministers of India and Israel met to renew their commitment to expand bilateral relations, especially in high technology and innovation. Reiterating the “deep relationship between two unique civilizations—the Indian civilization, the Jewish civilization,” Naftali Bennett, who had taken office only a few weeks earlier, looked to Narendra Modi and spoke fondly of his experience with Indians as an entrepreneur: “… when I ran a high-tech company, we merged with an Indian company—the two I’s, India and Israel in Manhattan. In the office, there were a bunch of Israelis and Indians, and getting together created a remarkable dynamic of innovation. There’s so much that we can learn from you.” The Glasgow meeting came shortly after Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s five-day visit to Israel, when he extended an invitation to Bennett from Modi to visit India on the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

The warmth emanating from New Delhi has nothing to do with the recent change of government in Israel; ever since assuming office in 2014, Modi has been courting Israeli political and business leaders at a steady clip, even using the annual meetings of the U.N. General Assembly, typically a venue unfriendly to Israel, to reach out to the Jewish state and express his appreciation of it in official settings. Much to the annoyance of his detractors, Modi had an unusually close personal rapport with Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Relations were not always like this. For a time until the late 1970s, Indian passports were marked “not valid for travel to Israel,” reflecting the Third World consensus of the time. During then-Israeli President Zalman Shazar’s overnight stay in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in March 1966, en route to a state visit to Nepal, no one from the Indian government would meet with him (though he was met with a hostile demonstration outside his hotel). In 1975, India joined Arab and Islamic countries in voting for UNGA Resolution 3379, declaring that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”

To understand how and why India’s Israel policy has changed so dramatically in the last century, it helps to divide it into four distinct phases.

The initial phase stretched from the early 1920s until 1992, when India was either indifferent to, unfamiliar with, or hostile toward the idea of Jewish nationalism. With a tiny Jewish population and enormous Muslim population in India (and the wider world), it was difficult for Indian leaders to appreciate or care about Jewish history or the longing for statehood. What might have provided a basis for historical interest among Indians—Jews arrived on the western shores of India shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, and the Cochin Jews of modern-day Kerala are said to have descended from Judean sailors in King Solomon’s time—fell victim to the Hindu-Muslim rivalry during the final stages of British India and demands for sectarian partition. As a result, India not only voted against the U.N. partition plan for Palestine in November 1947 but also opposed Israel’s admission into the U.N. in May 1949.

Israel’s existence, success, acceptance by other powers, and political realities eventually compelled the Indian government to tone down its opposition. Its diplomatic recognition of Israel arrived on Sept. 17, 1950, (the day Narendra Modi was born), but fear of Pakistani efforts to stir up Arab anger over Kashmir convinced Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, to break his promise for full normalization with a resident mission in Israel. As a result, bilateral diplomatic relations were put on pause for the remainder of the Cold War. It was only after the collapse of the USSR and the Madrid Conference of 1991 that India was finally willing to normalize relations with Israel. India was now faced with a U.S.-dominated world order, and could not ignore what appeared at the time to be the potential for a U.S.-brokered peace settlement with the Palestinians.

In the second phase of relations, between 1992 and 2004, India attempted to balance its new relationship with Israel with continued support for the Palestinians: New and more frequent engagements with Israel were accompanied by visits from Palestinian leaders and pro-Palestinian statements from Indian officials. This parallel track continued until 2004, when the Congress Party returned to power after six years in opposition. Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose tenure between 2004 and 2014 can be thought of as the third phase of relations, India sought to delink its bilateral relationships in the Middle East from the larger issue of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Singh’s strategy was to pair criticism of Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians with the promotion of bilateral defense cooperation. This paved the way for Indian and Israeli service chiefs and heads of security agencies to consult each other more openly and exchange notes more regularly.

The fourth and current phase began with Modi’s election in May 2014. Having engaged with Israeli diplomats and investors since his days as the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, Modi has managed to effectively “normalize” Israel within India’s broader Middle East policy process. Cordial but inflexible, Modi openly praises Israel and has arranged for a spate of state visits by presidents, prime ministers, and defense and foreign ministers, and exchanges between the military and security establishments. In 2015, Pranab Kumar Mukherjee became the first Indian president to visit Israel, followed by Reuven Rivlin’s reciprocal visit to India in 2016.

Until the arrival of Modi, India’s voting pattern in the U.N. and international agencies did not reflect the strengthening of bilateral relations that had begun in the 1990s, and India continued to support resolutions that were unbalanced or critical of Israel. This is no longer the case. India refused to support anti-Israel U.N. resolutions in 2015 and 2017 (denying Jewish connections to Jerusalem and condemning Israel for war crimes, respectively), and in 2021, it abstained from two U.N. Human Rights Council resolutions condemning the “situation in Palestine” and demanding a probe into Israeli actions in Gaza.

In July 2017, Modi became the first prime minister in Indian history to visit the Jewish state, and the following January, Netanyahu came to India. These visits were historically significant, but they were mostly conspicuous for the lengths each man went not just to welcome but to celebrate the other. Modi’s visit to Israel began with a floral tribute at Theodor Herzl’s grave, a tour of Yad Vashem, and a personal meeting with the family of Moshe Holtzberg, who lost his parents in the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Modi’s conspicuous bonhomie with Netanyahu was captured in a photographed stroll along Olga Beach in Haifa, with each man smiling and standing barefoot in the rolling Mediterranean tide. Most significantly, Modi left Israel without visiting Ramallah to meet with Palestinian officials, as visiting dignitaries often do.

In India, Modi took the Netanyahus on a guided tour of the Sabarmati Ashram, once the residence of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India, and ended the trip with “Shalom Bollywood,” a gala event thrown by India’s world-famous film industry in Mumbai. Netanyahu was heavily photographed while surrounded by some of the most popular actors and entertainment moguls in India. Both prime ministers went on to emphasize their friendship in their respective domestic campaign rallies.

Credit for the dizzying improvement in bilateral relations doesn’t just go to India, however. During Singh’s United Party Alliance government, when India’s Communist Party was able to chill warming relations with the Jewish state, Israel decided to reach out to various Indian state governments and improve ties through an apolitical economic agenda. Unlike India’s central government, the states prioritize developmental agendas in agriculture, water management, and farming, not the faraway and irrelevant Middle East peace process. Such decentralized Israeli engagement has helped weatherproof it against changes in New Delhi, and expanded grassroots support for it even among India’s historically hostile middle class.

Most remarkably, there has also been a noticeable shift in attitudes toward Israel among Indian Muslims. It’s not just the iftar parties (to break the Ramadan fast) that the Israeli Embassy has organized as part of its outreach efforts. Increasing numbers of Indian Muslims have traveled to Israel as tourists and applied to study and work there. Anger and animosity remain over the Palestinian issue, but it is no longer so dogmatic, and doesn’t exist to the degree that national Indian leaders need to fear a domestic Muslim backlash to increasing cooperation with Israel. Younger Indian Muslims might see the Palestinian cause as a humanitarian issue, but not as an Indian national interest.

And nowhere is cooperation on national interests more visible than in the military domain. In recent years, India and Israel have cooperated not just in conventional weapons and ammunition sales but in the most significant matters of national security, including border management, missile defense, aviation, counterterrorism, and space technology. This all began in the 1990s, when India solicited Israeli assistance in upgrading the aging Soviet inventories of the Indian army. Gradually this moved to the Indian import and joint production of small arms and ammunition, then to border security and counterterrorism, including a host of avionics, radar equipment, and fast-patrol boats. In the 2000s, when the United States pressured Israel into abandoning the export of the Phalcon AWACS air system to China, Israel sold it to India, along with unmanned aerial vehicles, missiles, and anti-missile systems. Until the massive entry of the United States into the Indian defense market, Israel was the second-largest exporter of arms to India after Russia (a traditional supplier since the late 1950s). Today, India is the largest market for Israeli defense exports.

Such developments allowed Modi and Netanyahu to take advantage of another opportunity to publicize their ties. Accompanied by Netanyahu in July 2017, Modi attended a memorial event at the Indian military cemetery for the soldiers who fought for the liberation of Haifa. The following year, Netanyahu was present in Delhi for the official renaming of the iconic Teen Murti Chowk war memorial—commemorating the Hyderabad, Jodhpur, and Mysore Lancers who fought in the Battle of Haifa in World War I—as Teen Murti Haifa Chowk.

Younger Indian Muslims might see the Palestinian cause as a humanitarian issue, but not as an Indian national interest.

One area where ties have lagged has been trade, which hovers around only $5 billion and hasn’t expanded substantially over the course of the last three decades. It still skews in favor of the old diamond trade, which in 2019-20 accounted for over one-third of the total Indo-Israeli trade value. That’s a significant drop from the 1990s, when diamonds accounted for about half of bilateral trade, but the continuing domination of the decidedly unmodern jewel trade only underscores the relationship’s apparent limitations.

That said, during his October 2021 visit to Israel, Jaishankar promised to expedite and conclude negotiations for a free trade agreement by mid-2022. And two-way investments are on the rise. Indian companies have invested heavily in Israel’s pharmaceutical and high-tech companies and expanded their presence in the agricultural sector. Israel has set up dozens of “centers of excellence” across India to further cooperation in modern farming and other agricultural techniques, and there are currently over 30 Israeli water projects in India, including seven desalination plants that use Israeli technologies.

Economic ties will likely continue to grow as Israel becomes more accepted in its own neighborhood. The March 2018 Air India flight from New Delhi to Tel Aviv—the first ever to over fly over Saudi airspace—was seen in India as a sign that Israel will only become easier to invest in and trade with in the future.

Indian opponents of increasingly close Indo-Israeli relations often refer to a perceived ideological convergence between Hindutva (the Hindu nationalism favored by Modi) and Likud (Netanyahu’s party, which is now out of power, but still doubles as a byword for Israeli conservative nationalism more generally). If this observation ever had much purchase in India, it has waned very quickly. Three developments in particular have undermined these Indian critics of bilateral ties: first the aforementioned willingness of Indian Muslims to view Israel in a new and more favorable light; second, the diminishing importance of the Palestinian cause in inter-Arab relations, as manifested by the Abraham Accords; and third, the relative electoral weakness of left-wing parties in both countries.

The Indian media, traditionally hostile toward Israel, has taken the cue. It still tends to avoid singing Israel’s praises during armed conflicts, and largely depicted the Pegasus controversy (when a private Israeli spyware firm sold sensitive monitoring software to Indian state agencies) as the fault of the State of Israel. But overall coverage of the Jewish state has become noticeably more balanced. During the two-week Gaza conflict in May 2021, for example, Hamas rockets launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel were covered as violent unilateral acts that would incur understandable consequences—which cannot be said even of many Western news outlets.

One sticking point remains the status of Jerusalem. Despite the obvious reality of Israeli power, governance, and institutions, Indian officials and citizens still speak of Tel Aviv as its capital. When Donald Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there, he did not receive support from New Delhi, which was eager to be helpful to the president on other matters. At the U.N., India joined with 128 other countries in voting to reject the American shift. At the same time, a few months before the Trump administration’s decision on Jerusalem, India did decide to drop all references to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state—a highly significant move. The official statement from a government spokesperson on the U.S. Embassy was also decidedly muted, careful to avoid antagonizing the White House or State Department and simply reaffirmed India’s freedom to make its own choice.

The other major sticking point is Iran. While India understands Israel’s concerns vis-à-vis Iranian policies and rhetoric, it sees the Islamic Republic as a potential partner in its search for energy security, a trade corridor to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and most importantly, as a counterweight to nuclear-armed Pakistan. Despite repeated efforts, neither Israeli diplomacy nor hostile Iranian actions (like its suspected role in the February 2012 terror attack on Israeli diplomats in New Delhi) have dislodged India’s position. There have been some instances of limited cooperation, like the Israeli TecSAR-1 spy satellite designed to surveil Iran that India launched in 2008, and New Delhi’s support of various U.S. anti-proliferation efforts in the U.N. and IAEA. (The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the intensification of economic sanctions against Iran also compelled India to reduce and eventually stop its oil imports in 2019, though this was not voluntary.) But India is unlikely to help or support Israel’s Iran policy anytime soon.

What about China? Conscious of Israeli sensitivities and its uncomfortable position vis-à-vis the United States, India has largely refrained from raising China in its engagements with Israel, even as Israel has welcomed various types of investment and infrastructure from China and participated in bilateral defense talks. One reason India can afford not to mention this is that it knows the United States wants to curtail Sino-Israeli ties for its own reasons, especially strategic investments in Israel’s high-tech industry. If Washington succeeds, it will only redound to India’s benefit, and further Indo-Israeli ties.

For a more optimistic glimpse of the future, consider the October 2021 formation of the four-member mini-quad, comprising the U.S., India, Israel, and the UAE—a grouping that would have given Osama bin Laden nightmares. The new bloc, which contains within it strong bilateral and trilateral defense ties, will reportedly focus on developing closer economic relations that might also attract other interested parties like Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Greece, and France. This bloc also signals India’s willingness to elevate Israel within its broader Middle East framework, and leverage Israel for its Indo-Pacific cooperation with the United States. The Modi government increasingly sees the Jewish state as India’s ace in the hole—both in the Middle East and beyond.

P.R. Kumaraswamy teaches Israeli politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is the author of India’s Israel Policy (Columbia University Press, 2010) and Squaring the Circle: Mahatma Gandhi and the Jewish National Home.