How India-Israel ties went from cold shoulder to warm embrace - opinion

When the situation allows, it is imperative that Bennett's trip to India be rescheduled. India has become an increasingly key partner to Israel and the relationship has been categorized as strategic.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit the water desalination plant at Olga beach, in 2017. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit the water desalination plant at Olga beach, in 2017.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

With the wave of murderous terror attacks in Israel’s cities, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s official visit to India, planned for next week, had to be postponed. The Indians, who have had their own difficult experiences with terrorism, undoubtedly understood.

When the situation allows, it is imperative that the prime minister’s trip be rescheduled. India has become an increasingly key partner to Israel and Bennett has categorized the relationship as a strategic alliance.

There are many reasons why Israel and India should be natural friends. Throughout India’s long history, the sort of antisemitic discrimination ubiquitous across Europe and the Middle East was almost nonexistent on the subcontinent. Moreover, Jews and Indians both share heritages dating back to antiquity that have made unquestionable contributions to human civilization.

In the modern period, Israelis and Indians alike achieved independence in the years immediately following the World War II and only after difficult struggles against British colonial rule. Both countries were born amidst considerable bloodshed, undergoing painful partitions and harrowing population transfers. And in both cases independence was led by pragmatic nationalists, who embraced secularism and social democracy – Mapai in Israel and Congress in India.

Yet, despite this common ground, for decades Israel’s relations with India were anything but good. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the architect of a cold shoulder policy; his Israeli counterpart, David Ben-Gurion, accusing the Indian leader of boycotting Israel.

 Indian flag (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Indian flag (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Ben-Gurion wasn’t wrong. Barely three months after achieving its own independence, India opposed the 1947 UN partition proposal calling for the establishment of a Jewish state. In 1949, India voted against Israel’s UN membership. Although in 1950 it recognized Israel, in Nehru’s words, “because Israel is a fact,” India was determined to maintain relations only at the lowest level; permitting Israel to have a consulate in Bombay (Mumbai), while adamantly refusing the opening of an embassy in New Delhi.

It was not that Nehru was inherently anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist, far from it. Western-educated social democrats of his generation tended to have an ideological affinity for the Jewish people and the newborn Jewish state. Even Nehru’s opposition to the UN’s 1947 partition proposal may have had more to do with India’s own traumatic experience with partition than with any innate antipathy to Jewish sovereignty.

Ultimately, the cold shoulder stemmed from Indian realpolitik, in Nehru’s words, the desire not “to offend the sentiments of our friends in Arab countries.”

India’s central national security challenge was its ongoing tense relations with Pakistan. In addition to the massive violence surrounding the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947, the two countries have fought a series of wars, and between those conflicts there were numerous border skirmishes and military stand-offs.

Nehru was determined not to see Muslim states automatically line up against India in support of their coreligionists in Islamabad, and his policy of non-alignment provided a near perfect solution.

Not only did non-alignment enhance India’s global status by making New Delhi the spokesperson for the steadily increasing list of countries freed from colonial bondage that, like India, sought an independent course between Western and Soviet blocs, but non-alignment also helped neutralize pro-Pakistan Islamic solidarity, which could be very detrimental to Indian interests.

IN 1955, Nehru was a key player at the first large-scale Afro-Asian conference in Bandung that brought together twenty-nine leaders from newly independent countries. And in 1961, Nehru had a central role in Belgrade at the official founding of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Along with Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, Nehru’s primary partner in non-alignment was Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose own revolutionary anti-colonialist secular Arab nationalism seemingly paired well with Nehru’s world view (notwithstanding that Nehru was a democrat and Nasser was not).

From a practical perspective, the Nehru-Nasser axis served both well. Nehru was successful in mitigating support for Pakistan in the Arab world that could have been a natural bulwark for Islamabad’s positions. For his part, Nasser received a consequential international platform from which to promote his pan-Arab agenda.

Interestingly, at the time, although Nasser was perceived very negatively in Israel, Nehru remained much admired. The former was widely considered an antisemitic fascist dictator, while the Indian prime minister retained the aura of a principled and progressive international statesman.

Longtime labor and kibbutz leader Yigal Allon, who met with Nehru in New Delhi in 1959, expressed the favorable view of many Israelis when he wrote that Nehru’s India could be a force for constructive moderation in the Middle East, even predicting that India could help broker peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

It didn’t unfold that way, but Arab-Israel peace did directly impact Indo-Israeli relations. In the aftermath of the 1991 Madrid Middle East peace conference, New Delhi finally moved to upgrade ties, immediately following Beijing’s example in agreeing with Israel to the reciprocal opening of embassies and an exchange of ambassadors.

Six years later, Israeli president Ezer Weizman became the first Israeli president to visit India, and in 2003, prime minister Ariel Sharon was the first Israeli prime minister to do so. While India took longer to reciprocate, Indian president Pranab Mukherjee becoming the first Indian head of state to visit Israel in 2015 and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi being welcomed to Jerusalem two years later, the trajectory for a better relationship was set.

If previously it was only young Israeli backpackers who thronged to the subcontinent on their obligatory post-IDF travels abroad, more and more Israeli tech entrepreneurs also started flocking to India in search of business partnerships.

Undeniably, it was under the very special friendship between prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Modi that the relationship mushroomed, the two right-of-center national leaders finding a kindred spirit and valued partner in each other.

Netanyahu once joked with Modi that while India is the world’s biggest democracy, Israel is the largest democracy in the Middle East. And on their joint watch, cooperation expanded across the board: defense, intelligence, counterterrorism, cyber, innovation, investment, trade, agriscience, water management, green energy, space and much more. There were even rare examples of India not voting against Israel at the UN.

Today’s robust Indo-Israeli ties are yet another manifestation of the larger transformation in Israel’s international standing. Unlike Ben-Gurion, Bennett’s challenge isn’t an Indian boycott, but to build on Netanyahu’s work and upgrade the relationship still further. When Jerusalem and New Delhi finalize new dates for Bennett’s visit, there will be an opportunity to do exactly that.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a visiting fellow at the INSS at Tel Aviv University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.