Israel - India Relations
Israel now ranks second only to Russia as the biggest supplier of military equipment to India. A burgeoning strategic partnership with Israel matters more to India than reflexive solidarity with the Palestinian cause. India’s defenders of Israel see both nations engaged in a common conflict against Islamist extremism, placing Hamas in a continuum that runs all the way to South Asia.
With India, the relationship is focused on commercial trade and defense cooperation. By 2007 the relationship with India was dominated by defense cooperation and other trade. Initially 95 percent of the trade between Israel and India was diamonds, but by 2007 diamonds were now to 70 percent, and there was significant investment in real estate and businesses on both sides as both countries' economies continue to liberalize.
India is restrained in the relationship by its large Muslim population, their concern about relations with the Arab world, and lingering elements of the Non-Aligned Movement/Nehru ideology. India has traditionally supported the Palestinian cause, and voted in its favor at the UN. India also runs a representative office in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority.
Mahatma Gandhi had poured scorn on the idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East. “Surely it would be a crime against humanity,” he wrote in 1938, “to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.” India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, voted against Israel joining the United Nations in 1949. And the Nehruvian principle of solidarity with anti-colonial causes guided Indian foreign policy for much of the 20th century.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar's book, Hindutva (published in 1923), provided the theoretical underpinning of the Hindu nationalist tradition that eventually birthed the BJP. Inspired by Zionism, Savarkar believed that Hindus and Jews shared a history of oppression at the hands of Muslims, and that both deserved redress. “It must be emphasized that speaking historically, the whole of Palestine has been, from at least 2,000 years before the birth of the Muslim prophet, the national home of the Jewish people,” Savarkar said. In Hindutva, he underlined his support for the Zionist cause. "If the Zionists’ dreams were realized, if Palestine became a Jewish state, it would gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends."
Critics of India’s traditional Israel policy dismiss it as a cynical bid to court India’s large Muslim vote, but many officials saw an echo of their own worldview in the struggle of a secular and multi-religious PLO against an Israeli state defined by religion. Some even saw that as an echo of India’s own confrontations with Pakistan.
Israel has had a hard time breaking its diplomatic isolation among the states of the Global South. Solidarity with the Palestinian people – even if it has weakened over the years – remains strong. For decades until 1992, India had abstained out of principle from having close relations with Israel, a state seen as a colonial and apartheid power. But this hesitancy came to an end when India opened up its economy to the winds of globalisation and decided to tilt its foreign policy alignment towards Washington.
Having normalised relations with India was a prize for Israel. India remains an influential country in the Global South and Israel hoped that India’s entry into the ledger on its side would break apart the Global South’s solidarity with the Palestinian people. This has not happened. Even India has not been able to fully join the pro-Israel camp.
The reason the government – then led by the Congress Party – decided on a rapprochement with Israel is that this was the price demanded by Washington for India’s foreign policy engagement with the US. Washington, Israel’s emissary, made it clear that there could be no real strategic partnership between India and the US if the former continued to hold adverse views on Israel. It was the Congress Party, and not the Hindu Right (Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP), that drove the policy of normalisation. The BJP, with its instinctual anti-Muslim politics, had long called for close relations with Israel, on the grounds that both the Israelis and the BJP have an antipathy to Muslims.
It was not this anti-Muslim agenda that provoked normalisation, but it was the pressure from Washington. The Indian government at that time believed that it had to accede to commands from the International Monetary Fund and that it had to align itself with the new world developments – the emergence of US hegemony with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the exhaustion of the ‘Third World Project’.
In 1998, India tested nuclear weapons for the second time, after the first in 1974. The US government stopped selling India certain weapons systems because of the Glenn Amendment, which prohibits US military assistance to countries that acquire or transfer nuclear reprocessing technology outside of the international nonproliferation regimes.Before 1991, India relied upon the USSR for weapons systems. It then moved to reliance on the United States and Western Europe. With the Glenn Amendment shutting off the US spigot and with international sanctions making it hard to buy certain systems from Western Europe, India turned to Israel.
Israeli arms manufacturing had long benefitted from a close relationship with Western weapons manufacturers, going into joint ventures with several of them. India was able to buy – essentially – US arms from Israel, side-stepping the Glenn Amendment. India quickly began to buy half of Israel’s arms exports, with annual totals in the billions of dollars. These figures remained stable over the years, although with the return of Russian arms, India has begsn once again to diversify its sources.
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