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The Israeli daily Ha’aretz recently characterized the relationship between India and Israel as “strong but low key,” and for once, Ha’aretz’s description seems fairly accurate. Cursory observation shows that the countries share two crucial features — both are democracies and both are surrounded by Muslim enemies. In addition, Islamic terrorism has been visited upon both Israel and India, and should nuclear Pakistan crumble and be taken over by jihadi Islamists, the consequences would be dire for both nations.
India and Israel’s relationship has been rather adversarial for most of Israel’s existence. During India’s pre-independence period, Gandhi, Nehru, and the ruling Indian National Congress Party opposed the creation of a Jewish national home and voted in opposition to the 1947 recommendation by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to partition Palestine. Moreover, India voted against the admission of Israel into the United Nations in May 1949.
Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, maintained a strong anti-Israel position in spite of the fact that all of India’s opposition parties – from the Left to the Right (including the communist and socialist parties on the Left and Jan Sanngh and Swantantra parties on the Right) – argued for close political and economic ties with Israel. For Nehru and his successors in the Indian National Congress, domestic considerations such as appeasement of the large Muslim minority, drove India to support the Arab cause. In addition, Nehru, Tito, and Egypt’s Nasser led the Non-Aligned Block during the Cold War, and India tilted towards the Soviet Union while Israel was clearly in the Western camp.
In the aftermath of the Pakistani inspired uprising against Indian-controlled Kashmir in 1989, military escalation with Pakistan, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ending of the Cold War, India decided to chart a pro-Western and pro-American course. This eventuated in India’s decision to formalize relations with Israel.
The 1993 Oslo Peace Accord between Israel and the Palestinians freed up India to fully embrace Israel as a partner. India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. In February 1992, Israel opened its embassy in New Delhi, and in May of that same year, India opened its embassy in Tel Aviv. In December 1996, then-Israeli President Ezer Weizman led a 24-member delegation of Israeli businesspeople to India – the first of dozens of reciprocal visits by Israeli and Indian officials. The relationship received a major boost when the Bharatiya Jaanata, the Hindu nationalist party, took power in India in 1998 (ending in 2004).
Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2003 trip to India was a pivotal moment, marking the first such visit by a top Israeli government official. During his trip, Sharon met with India’s Prime Minister at the time, Atal Bihari, and other Indian leaders and signed a series of cooperative agreements. The accords addressed a set of issues including the environment, health, education and drug trafficking. At the end of Sharon’s visit, the two nations issued the Delhi Statement on Friendship and Cooperation, aimed at enhancing bilateral agreements and creating an institutional framework for continued exchanges. Since 1999, India’s Ministry of External Affairs and Israel’s Foreign Ministry have held annual bilateral consultations in Jerusalem and New Delhi, in addition to having periodic discussions on counterterrorism.
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