- Posted August 6, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Needed Today: The India-Israel Axis
The tongue-in-cheek video underscored serious business. Rafael won a $1 billion contract that year to provide India with surface-to-air missile systems, and along with other Israeli companies it has supplied New Delhi with an estimated $10 billion in military gear over the last decade, according to the Economic Times. Israel now ranks second only to Russia as the biggest supplier of military equipment to India. In keeping with the metaphor of the Rafael video, outgoing Israeli ambassador Alon Ushpiz last June hailed his country’s relationship with India as one in which “two intimate partners who trust each other start thinking of challenges together and solutions together and what follows together.”
There was no such coziness two decades ago, when India refused even to keep an embassy in Israel. But where protests and public denunciations of Israeli excesses were once routine, today many commentators see India’s traditional support for Palestinians as anachronistic and inimical to the national interest.
India backed a call for a United Nations Human Rights Council investigation into Israel’s ongoing onslaught in Gaza last week (the United States was the only country to oppose the resolution). But that was a largely symbolic vote. At home, the newly elected government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blocked parliamentary votes to condemn Israeli actions.
It is clear that New Delhi appears ready to suggest publicly what many officials already acknowledge privately: A burgeoning strategic partnership with Israel matters more to India than reflexive solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
Until the end of the Cold War, India had maintained consistent support for Palestinians. Mahatma Gandhi had poured scorn on the idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East. “Surely it would be a crime against humanity,” he wrote in 1938, “to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.” India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, voted against Israel joining the United Nations in 1949. And the Nehruvian principle of solidarity with anti-colonial causes guided Indian foreign policy for much of the 20th century. In 1974, India became the first non-Arab state to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the official representative of Palestinians. It treated Israel with much the same diplomatic disdain it reserved for apartheid South Africa.
Critics of India’s traditional Israel policy dismiss it as a cynical bid to court India’s large Muslim vote, but many officials saw an echo of their own worldview in the struggle of a secular and multi-religious PLO against an Israeli state defined by religion. Some even saw that as an echo of India’s own confrontations with Pakistan. Both Israel and Pakistan were born after World War II with religious identity as their central organizing principle, as a result of partition policies adopted by the departing British colonial authorities.
It’s a parallel not lost on Pakistani leaders. Former military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq claimed in 1981 that “Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state. Take out the Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse.” In 2012, another former military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, urged the establishment of better ties with Israel.
India’s foreign policy shift on Israel began with the international impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Non-alignment and anti-colonial solidarity seemed moth-eaten in a world of unrivaled American power and triumphant capitalism. India pivoted, aligning itself more closely with the United States. It also began to strengthen ties with Israel, with both countries exchanging ambassadors in 1992.
India’s engagement with Israel has grown substantially in the last two decades on military, scientific, commercial and agricultural matters. The affinity has been less ideological than pragmatic, each side understanding the other’s needs. Israel remains uncomfortable about India’s close ties with Iran, just as India looks warily at Israel’s relationship with China. Neither side allows their bilateral relationship to be imperiled by India’s rhetorical condemnation of Israeli actions — dismissed by one Israeli journalist as India’s “periodic lip service to the Palestinian plight.”
Material benefits are not the only reason for India’s foreign policy establishment building friendly relations with Israel. There’s also the feeling that New Delhi has been poorly compensated for supporting Palestine. It may be home to the world’s second largest Muslim population, but India has been consistently blocked from involvement in the Organization of the Islamic Conference. It is also disappointed by what it sees as the Arab world’s simplistic position on the thorny issue of Kashmir. “India has received no worthwhile backing from the Arab countries in the resolution of problems it faces in its neighborhood, especially Kashmir,” wrote Harsh V. Pant, a scholar of international relations at King’s College London. “There have been no serious attempts by the Arab world to put pressure on Pakistan to reign in the cross-border insurgency in Kashmir.”
Though India’s realpolitik shift is not the work of a particular party or faction, India’s resurgent right-wing is far more ideologically sympathetic to Israel. Prime Minister Modi, then-chief minister of Gujarat with a reputation as an anti-Muslim firebrand, visited Israel in 2006. The Indian conversation about Israel and Palestine has become tinged by India’s own politics of religion and identity. India’s defenders of Israel see both nations engaged in a common conflict against Islamist extremism, placing Hamas in a continuum that runs all the way to South Asia.
There is no denying the fact that Israel has far more friends in India than TV anchors and left-leaning policy correspondents realize. The same Internet army of right-wing Indians that supported Modi’s election has mobilized in support of Israel. The Twitter hashtag “#IndiaWithIsrael” trended across the country, galvanizing real-life rallies in support of Israel’s campaign in Gaza.
Israeli embassy spokesman Ohad Horsandi emphasized the shared experience of terrorism. “Israel, India and other like minded countries,” he told Indian media, “are facing terror threats from organizations with similar radical ideology such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant outfit accused of committing the 2008 Mumbai attacks and other atrocities in India] and Hamas. These organizations are committed to kill, kidnap and terrorize civilians and should be treated as terrorist organizations.”
Public opinion in India remains divided, however, and Indians of all stripes have expressed horror at the Israeli siege of Gaza. But the extent of public support in India for Israel’s current offensive would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Where once the anti-colonial rhetoric of Gandhi and Nehru might have guided Indian affinities, in today’s enthusiasm for the “war on terror” we see traces of another 20th century Indian ideologue.
Savarkar was at odds with the secular pluralism of India’s mainstream independence struggle and his book, Hindutva, provided the theoretical underpinning of the Hindu nationalist tradition that eventually birthed the BJP. Inspired by Zionism, Savarkar believed that Hindus and Jews shared a history of oppression at the hands of Muslims, and that both deserved redress. “It must be emphasized that speaking historically, the whole of Palestine has been, from at least 2,000 years before the birth of the Muslim prophet, the national home of the Jewish people,” Savarkar said. In Hindutva (published in 1923), he underlined his support for the Zionist cause. "If the Zionists’ dreams were realized, if Palestine became a Jewish state, it would gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends."
Under Modi’s leadership, India looks set to build closer friendship with Israel, no matter what degree of devastation is unleashed in Gaza this summer. Most supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party see the Jewish state more like most Americans do - as a doughty democracy standing up to terrorism in a rough neighborhood. Both countries face a threat from Islamist terrorists.
Even as pro-Palestinian protestors take to the streets of London and Paris, Israel's ties with the world's largest democracy are on the upswing. For the first time in a decade, New Delhi appears ready to suggest publicly what many officials already acknowledge privately: A burgeoning strategic partnership with Israel matters more to India than reflexive solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
India's new warmth toward Jerusalem is unmistakable. Two days after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8, India's Foreign Ministry expressed concern over the "tragic loss of civilian lives" in the Gaza Strip. But it also signaled alarm at "cross-border provocations resulting from rocket attacks" on Israel.
Why the change? To begin with, the Modi administration arguably has more natural affinity with Israel than any previous Indian government. Modi visited Israel as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat and has spoken publicly about emulating the Jewish state's remarkable economic success. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj used to head an India-Israel "friendship forum" in Parliament. Several parliamentarians and intellectuals aligned with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have traveled more than once to Israel.
Unlike India's leftists, who tend to view Israel as a "neoimperialist aggressor" oppressing the Palestinians, most BJP supporters see the Jewish state more like most Americans do—as a doughty democracy standing up to terrorism in a rough neighborhood. Both countries face a threat from Islamist terrorists.
The pursuit of closer ties with Jerusalem is hardly a BJP monopoly. Congress Party Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao ended India's Cold War hostility toward Israel by establishing full diplomatic relations in 1992.
But Rao acted when the Nehru-Gandhi family's sway over Congress was at its lowest ebb. India's founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was an outspoken partisan of the Palestinians. Under his daughter, Indira Gandhi, bear hugs for the blood-soaked Palestine Liberation Organization's Yasser Arafat became commonplace in India.
In 2004, when Congress returned to power under Sonia Gandhi after ousting the BJP, India-Israel ties turned frosty. Instead of simply maintaining its longstanding support for a two-state solution, India threw its weight behind the Palestinian demand for East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. High level government visits between India and Israel lost momentum, though bilateral trade, defense and intelligence ties set in motion by previous governments quietly continued to grow.
Though dressed up in principle, Congress's tilt toward the Palestinians was all about domestic politics. It assumed that India's 150 million Muslims are almost uniformly hostile to Israel and care more about the issue than do other Indians.
By the reductionist logic of Indian politics, you don't win votes by backing Israel but you can lose Muslim votes if your support is too obvious. Two years ago, on the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi attacked an opponent for allegedly promising to make a drought-stricken region bloom like the Israeli desert, a dog whistle aimed at Muslim voters.
For India, an end to the so-called Muslim veto is unambiguously good news. Indian farmers of all faiths can benefit from Israeli expertise in drip irrigation. Start-ups in Bangalore and Hyderabad see Israeli firms like Check Point (software) and Teva (pharmaceuticals) as role models. The rise of radical Islam across South Asia and the Middle East has raised the stakes for intelligence sharing between Jerusalem and New Delhi. The global norm that Israel is fighting to uphold—that terrorism has consequences—directly benefits India.
In terms of military cooperation, few countries have backed New Delhi as Israel did by supplying artillery shells during the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan. Since then, Israel has emerged as India's second biggest arms supplier after Russia.
The arguments put forward against closer ties with Israel—India's dependence on energy supplies and worker remittances from the Gulf—date to the 1970s. They downplay the facts that oil and gas are freely traded international commodities, and that Gulf economies that rely on Indian labor are hardly doing India a favor by employing its workers. The challenge for India's new government is to consolidate this positive sentiment toward Israel to ensure that no future administration can backslide again. It's time to finally bring the India-Israel relationship out of the closet—for good.