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.
The November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai by Islamist terrorists resulted in the killing six people at the Chabad House, including four Israeli Jews. India and Israel have stepped up security and military coordination, as Islamist terrorism has taken a major toll on both countries. Asia Times reported on April 2, 2009:
Israel emerged as India’s number one defense partner last week when it was revealed that New Delhi had signed a US$1.4 billion deal with the country to purchase a 70 kilometer shore-based and sea borne anti-missile air defense system… This is among the bigger defense deals between the two countries and the biggest military joint venture by India with a foreign country, overtaking the India-Russia BrahMos cruise missile project.
The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) reported on its website on May 20, 2010:
In a state visit to Israel in February 2010, Indian Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Jyotiradithya Scindia hailed the relationship between India and Israel as a “relationship between two souls,” based on shared morals and principles. In return, Israeli President Shimon Peres offered complete cooperation in India’s war against terror, stating “India’s security is as important to Israel as its own.”
In addition to diplomatic and defense ties, Israeli-Indian trade has grown exponentially, from $80 million in 1991 to about $4 billion in 2008. India and Israel signed five significant trade and economic agreements from 1993-1996, and negotiations on a free-trade agreement began earlier this year. India, the largest democracy in the world, with a population of 1.2 billion, might emerge as Israel’s most important economic partner in the near future.
Many young Israelis, upon completing their mandatory army service, choose India rather than Europe or the U.S. as their travel destination. A year ago, more than 45,000 Israelis traveled to India and, with business travel increasing on both sides, tourism may be another growth industry which will benefit both countries.
India’s relationship with Israel is indeed strong, albeit low key. Its historical ties to Iran and the Arab Gulf states, and the need for Middle Eastern oil to fuel its growing energy needs, compels New Delhi to keep its relations with Israel “under the radar.” Still, India never broke the sanctions imposed on Iran, and it is no longer willing to trade its relationship with Israel to appease the Arab-Muslim world.