It seems inconceivable that India and Israel lacked any relationship for most of
their relatively brief histories and established full diplomatic ties the same
year Israel and China did (1992). Yet by 2003, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval
Steinitz, acknowledged that the relationship was already second in importance “…
only to Israel’s relations with the United States.” Today, the Israel-India
relationship stands as one of the most important bilateral ties of the 21st
century and arguably the most important in the fight against radical jihad,
impelled by the altered geo-political landscape in the 1990s.
End of Alignments; Beginning of New Partnerships
The fall of the Soviet Union required nations to re-assess their alignments. The
Americans and their allies were Israel’s major supporters; the Soviets and
theirs were its major antagonists. Ever since Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal
Nehru’s reign, India was aligned with the USSR. Even his ‘non-aligned movement’
was adamantly anti-American and anti-Israel.
The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 ended those alignments. The rise of radical
Islam created a unique bond between India and Israel. Both are democratic
republics; both are secular despite being associated with particular faiths;
both have similar-sized Muslim minorities that harbour violent elements
associated with foreign and antagonistic entities; and, while Islamists might
call the United States the “great Satan,” there are no two countries they are
intent on destroying more than Israel and India. Both nations also have similar
parochial disputes with hostile neighbours. Kashmir is India’s ‘West Bank,’
because many would sacrifice both territories in land-for-peace formulae that
few believe will bring genuine peace. In those struggles, both nations are
regularly accused of human rights violations by nations that ignore the ethnic
cleansing which preceded the often-disingenuous charges.
A Blossoming Relationship between Natural Allies
In this changed geo-political landscape, the Israel-India relationship has
blossomed in hitherto unseen ways; most obviously in the military and security
fields, with special attention on the Islamist threat. For almost a decade,
Israel was India’s second largest defence supplier until 2009 when it became the
largest. The decline of Russia, India’s main supplier for decades, provided the
major impetus and imperative for India to seek a new trading partner. An unnamed
Indian official told me that the tipping point was the 26/11 “Al Qaida-aligned
attack on Mumbai (and our inability to retaliate), which highlighted India’s
weakness in air and naval surveillance.” Turning to Israel, India bought Israel
Aerospace Industries’ EL/M-2083 radar system valued at $600 million to “be
deployed along the Pakistani border.” Since then, Israel and India have moved
beyond the earlier stage of one-way military trade to joint projects in
developing both offensive and defensive weapons.
Aside from security cooperation, Israel’s Rural Development Organization, with
the goal of empowering India’s rural poor, has produced schools, income
generating projects and environmental efforts, and trained locals to carry out
the program independently. Israel also sent emergency teams to help Indian
earthquake victims and provided aid during other disasters, both natural and
man-made. Israel continues to maintain programs to improve medical care and
agricultural technologies in rural India.
Numerous points of cultural similarity have also emerged since the lid was taken
off. India rapidly replaced Turkey as Israelis’ favourite tourist destination
because, as noted in Reform Judaism, “Israelis feel an instinctive affinity for
India (whose) history is virtually devoid of anti-Semitism.” That cannot be
overestimated for Jews, who seem to be walking on territory watered with the
blood of the people everywhere; but not in India. I recall being in the holy
Hindu city of Rishikesh recently, where large numbers of young Israelis had come
to drink in the spirituality offered there and in nearby Haridwar.
Overcoming Critical Obstacles
A significant obstacle remains, however, to the countries’ virtually unlimited
economic, military, security and cultural cooperation. Despite the advantages
both countries have accrued, the vast majority of India’s media, academics, and
‘old guard’ in government cling to outmoded philosophies that do not reflect
21st century reality.
For instance, the Indian government supported the Palestinian Authority’s
attempt at UN recognition—though the majority rejected it as counterproductive;
supported the anti-Israel Goldstone Report—though its author and many others
subsequently repudiated it as biased; announced support for Syria’s Bashir Assad
in his fight with Israel—though even fellow Arabs recognize him as a despot and
India’s mainstream media claimed in 2009 that Israel “massacred 40
Palestinians”—later proven false but never retracted. In 2010, the media
reported that Israel’s defensive attack on the Gaza flotilla was “an act of
piracy of state terrorism”—though a generally hostile UN vindicated Israel.
Further, anti-Israel sentiment on Indian campuses manifests itself in regular
anti-Israel attacks. There are attempts to hijack our human rights agenda to an
anti-Israel one; professors pushing an anti-Israel narrative as objective truth,
as faculty and students consistently report; and, by offering Arab or Islamic
studies while rejecting classes on Israel or Jewish history not taught from an
ideological and anti-Israel perspective.
The elites’ international counterparts, rather than their fellow Indians,
comprise their reference group. Their enforced political correctness, if
unchecked, will prevent Israel-India relations from yielding their potential for
the peoples of both nations. Fortunately, there are signs of their grass-roots
rejection and growing pro-Israel sentiment among the populace. As one journalist
for a major Indian news outlet told me, “there is something of a generation gap
between the editors and publishers” and today’s younger professionals. The
disconnect, he and others told me, exists because of the fast pace at which
realities and relationships have changed. Other journalists report similar
pressure from the top and change among the masses. Pro-Israel groups are
galvanizing students on several campuses, and openly pro-Israel students won
three of four posts in Delhi University’s 2010 Student Union elections. Students
and faculty I have spoken with over the past several years display a consistent
hunger for information about Israeli technology, its life in general, and its
success against terrorism.
Overcoming this last vestige will enable even greater cooperation. The Israeli
Space Agency is looking to coordinate its program with India’s. Israel is being
considered as a location for Bollywood productions. It is looking to apply
cutting edge chemical and technological advances to help irrigate arid and
unproductive farmland. Both nations with deserved reputations as technological
innovators are planning joint efforts for state of the art military technology.
Without doubt, India and Israel are natural allies with overlapping interests
that increase every day.