India-Israel relations: US Jewry's contribution

Indian FM Krishna's visit to Israel was the highest ranking Indian visit to Israel in 11 years.

Netanyahu and Krishna 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Krishna 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week’s visit of Indian Foreign Minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna to Israel received extensive coverage in both Israel and India. It was the highest ranking Indian visit to Israel in 11 years.
There have been few visits by top-ranking Indian officials to Israel since the normalization of relations in 1992 – none by an Indian president or prime minister. While Indian leaders generally express a genuinely sympathetic view of Israel in private, they are reluctant to publicize Indo-Israeli cooperation and achievements. They fear that overt partnership with Israel may antagonize India’s Muslims – who, representing close to 15 percent of the total population, form an important vote bank – and jeopardize India’s strategic ties with the Arab and Muslim Middle East.
The 2001 visit to Israel of Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh took place under the leadership of the BJP, a political party characterized by a nationalist and Hindu outlook and little dependent on Muslim support and votes. The recent visit of Indian Foreign Minister Krishna is all the more significant as the Indian governing coalition is now headed by the Congress, a party which traditionally has paid close attention to Muslim sensitivities.
Furthermore, the visit of Krishna takes place at a time when the Israeli governing coalition’s right-wing orientation has been giving rise to widespread concerns and criticism across the international community, including among some of Israel’s friends.
As India and Israel are celebrating 20 years of diplomatic relations, Krishna’s visit may indicate that India is at last willing to stop treating Israel as its mistress. It is indeed high time the Indian and Israeli leadership engage in an open dialogue, considering the extensive relationship the two countries have developed on the ground. Bilateral trade amounts today to $5 billion – and it could hit $15 billion if a free trade agreement is signed – and cooperation in the agriculture, water, homeland security and aerospace sectors (to mention just a few) has flourished over the past two decades. Besides, it is no secret that Israel has become one of India’s top defense suppliers and partners.
If India seeks wider recognition as a great power (see India’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and its activity in the BRICS) and if it really wants to play a political role in the Middle East it can no longer avoid meeting Israel’s leaders for direct discussions.
FINANCE MINISTER Yuval Steinitz, during his visit to India in December 2011, declared that “Israel views its ties with India as its second most important relationship after the United States.” He omitted to mention that the tremendous progress in Indo-Israeli ties achieved in the past two decades would not have been possible in the face of US opposition.
The US has viewed positively the development of a strong partnership between India and Israel, particularly in the military and security spheres. It might eye military cooperation between India and Israel as a means to balance China’s rise in Asia, but this could not be further from Israel’s true intentions. Israel does not wish to see its relations with China burdened by appearing as a pawn in a global anti-Chinese strategy orchestrated by the US, and India too is deeply allergic to any idea of being used by one great power against another major power.
American Jewish advocacy groups have played a key role in both strengthening US support for the Indo-Israeli relationship, and pushing for India’s rapprochement with Israel. The involvement from the mid-1980s of American Jewry in lobbying the Indian government to normalize relations with Israel was a determining contribution. India had come to believe that the American Jewish lobby had a major influence on Washington and that improving relations with Israel would not only enhance India’s standing vis-à-vis American Jewry but also, in turn, help advance links with the US.
Since normalization, American Jewish organizations have continued to push for closer links between India and Israel, and for the recognition of overlapping interests between India, Israel and the US. Jewish lobbying played a role in obtaining the Bush administration’s approval for Israel’s sale to India of the Phalcon airborne warning system and, more recently, in convincing a rather skeptical Congress to sign the Indo-US nuclear deal that signified a substantial leap in the two countries’ relations.
The coming year presents an important opportunity for strengthening not only India-Israel relations but also ties between India and the Jewish people. World Jewry, and particularly the American Jewish community, will continue to play an important role in furthering the Indo-Israeli relationship. Israel should support these Jewish organizations in their efforts to seek political and economic alliances with the Indian Diaspora. Also, Israel should reach out to its own Indian Diaspora. The fact that Israeli Jews of Indian origin could play a significant part in building bridges and advancing ties with India has been so far largely overlooked. This is a great loss, considering that members of the Indian-Israeli community, with their contacts, understanding of local culture and languages, could well be Israel’s best spokespersons vis-à-vis India.

Arielle Kandel is a fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). Shalom Salomon Wald is a senior JPPI fellow and author of China and the Jewish people: old civilizations in a new era (JPPI, 2004).