India’s delicate balance

Despite their country’s decidedly pro-Palestinian policies, Indians are remarkably supportive of Israel.

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Monday evening at the Dan Tel Aviv Hotel, Israel and India celebrated the 20th anniversary of the establishment of official relations between the countries. In attendance was India’s External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna, the highest-ranking Indian politician to come to Israel in an official capacity in over a decade.
Addressing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Krishna noted that cooperation between the countries “would not have been possible if there did not exist a wealth of goodwill and cultural empathy,” and declared his “commitment” to long-term partnership “for the mutual benefit of our peoples.”
Nevertheless, the rarity of a visit by such a high-ranking Indian official underlines the delicate balance New Delhi maintains in its relations with Jerusalem. On one hand, commercial ties have improved immensely since January 1992, when the two countries formally established ties after the collapse of the Soviet Union and India’s dramatic transition from a centrally planned socialism under Soviet influence to a free market economy. Israel’s ability to fight devastating and rampant poverty and hunger by meeting India’s huge development needs in the fields of agriculture, water management and medicine boosted trade between the two from just $200 million in 1991 to about $5 billion. Meanwhile, Israel has much to gain from the Indians’ vast experience in the management of multinational corporations, a stage in economic development that Israeli firms have rarely achieved (with a few exceptions, such as Teva).
Trade will undoubtedly continue to flourish in the future after the signing of a long-awaited free trade agreement, delayed in part by opposition from Israeli firms that will find it difficult to compete with India’s consumer goods. Also, about 40,000 Israelis, many of them post-army backpackers, visit India every year, and about 20,000 Indians visit Israel.
ON THE other hand, as S. Samuel C. Rajiv of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi noted in an article published in this month’s Strategic Analysis, India has tended to play down military deals with Israel, estimated to be worth over $9b. over the past decade or so, while pursuing high-profile foreign relations with the Palestinian Authority. Those relations include tens of millions of dollars in direct aid, frequent visits by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and public declarations by senior Indian officials supporting the creation of a Palestinian state. The 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, which left 170 dead, including four Israelis, was a tragic reminder of the mutual challenges the two countries face and helped strengthen military relations.
At the same time, India prefers to avoid conflict with a significant Muslim minority there that opposes military ties with Israel. Also, out of clear economic and political interests – combined, perhaps, with a throwback to India’s role during the Cold War era as a leader of nonaligned states – New Delhi continues actively and publicly to foster relations with Arab and Muslim states.
Political leadership in India is openly critical of Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and has supported Palestinian initiatives in the UN – such as the September 2011 statehood bid, and the February 2011 resolution defining Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria as “illegal.” In addition, India opposes using military means to stop Iran’s nuclear program (though it is also opposed to allowing Iran to achieve nuclear capability).
YET DESPITE their country’s decidedly pro-Palestinian policies, Indians are remarkably supportive of Israel. A 2009 survey sponsored by the Foreign Ministry, involving 5,200 people in 13 countries, reportedly ranked India as the most “pro-Israel country” in the world, higher even than the US. Fifty-eight percent of Indian respondents had positive feelings about Israel, followed by US respondents at 56% and Russia and Mexico at 52% each.
India’s foreign policy is proof that a strong pro-Palestinian stance is not an obstacle to robust and mutually advantageous relations with Israel. Indians understand the complexity of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution in principle, provided it brings about a final resolution of the conflict. But in the meantime, until a peace for which most Indians, Palestinians and Israelis pray is achieved, life – and foreign relations – must go on maintaining a delicate balance.