Israeli-Indian ties reach new heights

It's been a long and winding road. Here’s a brief history of those relations, from Gandhi to Modi.

INDIAN PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi speaks at Hyderabad House in New Delhi (photo credit: REUTERS)
INDIAN PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi speaks at Hyderabad House in New Delhi
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives on Tuesday for the first-ever visit to the country by an Indian prime minister, it will mark the apex of a century-old relationship that has plodded forward in fits and starts, despite domestic Indian impediments, ideological misunderstandings, and Cold War considerations.
For the Zionist enterprise and Israel, the road from Gandhi to Modi has been long and arduous. But over the last century Zionist activists and then Israel never gave up on the possibility of developing stronger ties with the South Asian giant, even when their overtures were rebuffed; even when Israel gave to India, but received little in return.
Modi’s visit is a sign that this tenacity has paid off.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the cabinet this week, “This is a historic visit to Israel. In the 70 years of the country’s existence, no Indian prime minister has ever visited, and this is further expression of the State of Israel’s military, economic and diplomatic strength.”
How is this a reflection of Israel’s strength? Because India’s ties with Israel are not driven by sentiment – as one could argue is partly the case with Israel’s ties with the US – but solely by interests. India understands that it has much to gain militarily, economically and even diplomatically by strengthening ties with Israel, and a prime ministerial visit is a high-profile signal to everyone – to fellow Indians, the Arab world, and Israelis – of a desire to do just that.
But getting to this point has not been easy. Nicolas Blarel, an assistant professor of international relations at Leiden University’s Institute of Political Science, has documented the path in a 2014 book published by Oxford University Press titled “The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy.”
In a telephone interview from the Netherlands, Blarel reviewed that path, saying that the relations between the two countries could be divided into a number of different eras.
The first era began even before the establishment of the state, stretching from 1922 to 1948.
From the end of World War I until 1924, the Indian National Congress – the lead vehicle in India’s independence from the British, the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru – began developing a position on the Palestine issue. Blarel said that this position was driven by two considerations: wanting to create an alliance with the Muslim League – the party that led to the development of Pakistan – to fight British colonialism; and taking into consideration that there was strong sentiment among domestic Muslims for the Khilafat movement, a campaign launched by Muslims of the British Raj to influence London not to abolish the Ottoman Caliphate.
As a result, he said, Gandhi adopted a position that was “pretty much in favor of the Palestinian cause, and against the Zionist position.” His position was largely driven by domestic politics: a desire to create a strong alliance with the Muslim League against the British.
Overall, Blarel said, Gandhi’s position on the issue “was not very well informed.” He said the great champion of nonviolent resistance knew about Zionism and the Jewish struggle from some Jewish acquaintances he had in South Africa, but “had no strong knowledge,” and as a result deferred on the matter to Muslim nationalist leaders he knew at the time.
Blarel said Gandhi lost much interest in the matter in 1924, after the independence of Turkey and the dismantling of the caliphate. Around this time, moreover, the foreign policy of the Congress Party fell into Nehru’s hands.
Nehru’s approach on Palestine mirrored domestic debates about the future of India taking place in the subcontinent at the time. He was in a struggle with the Muslim League over the future of the subcontinent. He favored a secular-nationalist project with a strong Muslim minority and perhaps a federal form of governance, whereas the Muslim League was advocating a two-state solution – India and Pakistan – based on religious grounds.
Those domestic considerations were then transposed on how India viewed the Palestine question. As a member of the UN committee that proffered solutions for the future of Palestine in 1947, India joined Iran and Yugoslavia in favoring not partition – which was the majority opinion – but, rather, a Federal State of Palestine to be comprised of an Arab and a Jewish state.
IT TOOK two years after independence for India to recognize Israel, doing so in 1950. The establishment of full diplomatic ties, however, had to wait another 42 years, until 1992.
Blarel argued that Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was more a pragmatist than an idealist, and that his keeping Israel at arm’s length was more an early attempt not to antagonize the Arab states than any ideological opposition to Zionism or Israel.
India’s domestic situation needs to be factored in, Blarel said. At this time, soon after the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan, there was “a strong sentiment to appease domestic Muslim sensitivities.”
In addition, the First Kashmir War broke out in 1947, and India took its case to the UN. It needed support, and there were 13 Arab states at the time in the world body, which it did not want to antagonize.
In 1950, however, Nehru did formally recognize Israel. This came after Israel joined the UN, after many other countries recognized the nascent Jewish state, and after back channels were established with American Jewish groups and congressman who were exerting pressure on New Delhi.
The impact of the US Jewish community on the development of Indo-Israeli ties is a constant thread throughout the relationship, with ties with Israel seen in New Delhi at certain periods as a significant entry point into the West.
And then India did something unusual. It recognized Israel but deferred setting up an embassy in Tel Aviv. In 1953, however, it did let Jerusalem open a small consulate in Bombay. While trying to appease his domestic Muslim population and the Arab world, Nehru kept open the possibility of full diplomatic ties.
Until 1956 and the Suez Crisis. Then Nehru blasted Israel for siding with imperialist powers – France and Britain – against Egypt. “He called it naked aggression, the new imperialism. This is where Israel lost Nehru, because he saw it as part of the old colonial powers,” Blarel said.
Nevertheless, the consulate in Bombay remained open, and Nehru continued to meet Israelis when he traveled abroad. But the Sinai Campaign put a serious dent in what until then had been a steady upward trajectory in ties. It put a dent in the ties, but did not cripple them altogether.
For instance, in 1962 Nehru contacted Israel directly to provide weaponry for its conflict with China. Israel agreed and delivered weapons, such as mortars and anti-mortar equipment. It did the same for India during its 1965 war with Pakistan, and again in the 1971 war with Pakistan over Bangladesh.
Asked why India needed Israeli arms in these wars, Blarel said that the 1962 war with China came quickly and was a surprise, with India forced to scramble for weapons wherever it could. In the 1965 war with Pakistan, both the US and the Soviet Union embargoed weapons sales to India and Pakistan, so it needed to find third channels.
And in 1971, India was searching for partners, since the US was supporting Pakistan, as was the Arab and Muslim world. In addition to providing military assistance, Israel also provided diplomatic cover, one of the first countries to give diplomatic support to India by recognizing an independent Bangladesh.
THOSE GESTURES, however, were not repaid by India’s prime minister at the time, Indira Gandhi, whom Blarel termed India’s prime minister most critical of Israel.
“She had a strong role in the Non-Aligned Movement, tried to appease domestic Muslim sensibilities, and was very critical of Israel during the 1967 war,” he said. Unlike her father, Nehru, her opposition to Israel, he said, was based on ideological grounds.
Nevertheless, he pointed out, that did not keep her from asking Israel for arms in 1971.
And Israel agreed. Why?
“That is an interesting puzzle in the relationship,” Blarel said. “Israel keeps trying to push forward with the relationship, even though it is not getting anything in return. It keeps providing these weapons, and sometimes the compensation is harsh rhetoric from Gandhi.”
The reason, he proffered, is because Israel “knows that at one time the situation is going to change, because India is not getting any support from the Arab states, who keep supporting Pakistan, both rhetorically and by providing arms.”
There is also a realization in Israel, he said, that there is another sentiment toward Israel rising in India.
That sentiment came to the fore during the Six Day War when a number of opposition parties in Parliament – including a Hindu nationalist party that would morph into the BJP party of Modi that rules India today – pushed back against Gandhi’s position on Israel and adopted a more pro-Israel position.
Israel, Blarel said, kept pushing for better ties, and after Gandhi was forced out of power in 1977, better channels of communication were opened by her successor, Morarji Desai, with then-defense minister Moshe Dayan even making a secret trip to New Delhi in 1978.
Desai and Dayan met a few times, something used by Gandhi against Desai and his party when she swept back into power as prime minister in 1980.
After Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, she was replaced by her son Rajiv, who did not carry the same anti-Israel baggage as his mother. He opened diplomatic contacts with Israel, meeting then-prime minister Shimon Peres at the UN in 1985. He was the first Indian premier to publicly meet his Israeli counterpart.
While in New York, he also met members of Jewish organizations, who talked to him about the need to make it easier for Israelis to get visas for India and the need to normalize relations. They had leverage, because at the time Gandhi was looking to improve trade ties with the US. The penny dropped in New Delhi that to improve its ties with the US, it had to reevaluate its relations with Israel.
This momentum toward normalization was halted abruptly, however, in 1987 with the outbreak of the first intifada, and India becoming the first non-Muslim country to recognize a “State of Palestine.”
The situation changed back, however, in the early 1990s, when P.V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister. India was facing a severe economic crisis at the time, and Rao – who was at Gandhi’s meeting with Peres in 1985 – understood that better ties with Israel could help India get US investments and American support in the World Bank and the IMF.
Moreover, India realized that if it wanted to be involved in the Mideast peace process – the Madrid Conference took place in 1991 – it would have to normalize relations.
As a result, on January 29, 1992, just a day after a Mideast conference opened in Moscow, and just five days after India’s regional rival China normalized relations with Israel, India finally did the same.
Despite the opening of ties, “the relations don’t pick up speed so fast,” Blarel said, largely because the Congress Party still carried a lot of the baggage of the previous 42 years. At the same time, however, many of India’s state governments jumped at the opportunity and sent senior officials to Israel. This was easier to do, because those officials did not have to worry as much about domestic Muslim reactions or how it would impact on India’s international relations.
These visits had an important impact, with Modi himself first coming to Israel in 2006 when he was the chief minister in the western state of Gujarat.
In tandem with these visits, the defense relationship got a huge boost in the late 1990s. First, India’s decision to test a nuclear device in 1998 caused an international arms embargo, leading it again to look toward Israel for arms. And then, in the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan over Kashmir, Israel stepped up and provided the country with valuable weaponry.
“An impression that already existed in the Indian military then became prevalent as well in the political community,” Blarel said, “that Israel is a reliable partner during times of crisis.”
What helped consolidate that impression was that India at the time was being ruled by a center-right coalition led by the Hindu nationalist BJP party, the party of Modi.
Diplomatic inroads followed defense ties, as India’s foreign minister Jaswant Singh visited Israel for the first time in 2000, followed by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s historic trip to India in 2003.
That visit sent a signal that New Delhi, thankful for the military help rendered by Israel in the 1999 war, was eager to strengthen ties and take the relationship out of the closet and to a different plane.
Until a year later, when the BJP lost power to the Congress Party, and the collaboration went back into the closet. Business and defense ties boomed, but the high profile of the relations was taken down a notch: there were no major political statements on Israel, and gone were the senior ministerial visits, with India’s foreign minister not coming here again until 2012.
But then, in 2014, the BJP came back into power, this time without needing to form a coalition, and the pendulum swung back the other way, toward closer, open ties with Israel.
But even then, Modi has moved cautiously, carefully preparing the ground for this visit. Although there was talk soon after the election that he would visit quickly, it took three years for this trip to materialize. And before coming to Israel, he already has gone to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Iran.
But regardless of how he prepared the ground, this three-day trip is an undeniable landmark in a roller- coaster relationship that is almost a century old.