A main similarity between China and India in their relations to Israel and the Jewish people is that neither of these two old civilization has a tradition of anti-Semitism. Public opinion there is not hostile to Israel as it is in Europe, except in Muslim and Indian left-wing circles. Otherwise, the two countries’ recent relations with Israel have followed different trajectories. The recent improvement in Sino-Israeli relations has been a gradual, ongoing process that began in 2011 during the “Arab Spring.” It is driven by the complex, secretive policy-making machinery of the Chinese government and the Communist Party. In contrast, the recent improvement in Indo-Israeli relations, at least publically, began on May 16, 2014, when Narendra Modi, leader of the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was swept into power. It was a “landmark” victory. Modi, the first Indian prime minister born after India’s independence (1947), is also the first in 30 years to enjoy an absolute parliamentary majority that does not depend on smaller, Muslim or left-wing parties. In October 2014, Modi further tightened his grip on power when the BJP won elections in several Indian states. In addition, it was Modi’s luck that his victory coincided with – or probably helped to generate – signs of an economic turnaround, with the OECD forecasting a growth rate of approximately 6.5 percent in the coming years.8 A major generational and social change explains Modi’s victory. India’s young, its professionals, and its lower middle classes voted for him. They ignored the warnings of the ruling Congress Party, the old elites, and left-leaning intellectuals that voting for Modi would be anti-Muslim. They were not all anti-Muslim, but they did not care about the Third World, the heritage of the anti-Zionists, Gandhi and Nehru, or about Palestine, which had for many decades played an enormous role in India’s foreign and domestic policy.
Modi was known to be well disposed toward Israel. He had warm personal relations with the minuscule Jewish community of his home state Gujarat – 200 people among a total population of 63 million (2013). As chief minister of Gujarat he visited Israel in 2006, reviewed Israeli water and other technologies, and invited Israeli companies to do business in his state. He visited Ben Gurion’s small desert home in Sde Boker and was astounded to discover in the old man’s bedroom a photo of Mahatma Gandhi. Some of India’s approximately 180 million Muslims, 15 percent of its total population, continue to harbor bitterness about Modi’s alleged role in the anti-Muslim violence that broke out in Ahmedabad in 2002. In spite of this, his Israel connection played no role in his election campaign. So far, Modi’s victory has had the appearance of an historic watershed in Indo-Israeli relations. Unless Modi is forced to compromise his convictions in the future in response to new political constraints – in February 2015 the BJP suffered a major defeat in local Delhi elections – his tenure in office could amount to a paradigm shift in Indo-Israeli relations.
To understand the importance of this break in Indian politics, one must look more closely at India’s public anti-Israeli stand during the last period of Congress Party rule, 2004-2014. That decade saw a steady increase of economic, technological, and particularly military links between the two countries, although India’s leaders refused to meet with or even talk to Israel’s leaders. India’s representatives were instructed to unfailingly side with the Arab countries against Israel in the United Nations. However, as Israeli diplomats and American Jewish leaders can testify, privately, India and the Congress Party’s main leaders were not hostile to Israel even if some of their advisers were. They kept Israel at arm’s length because they believed that a friend of Israel could not become India’s leader. The true or alleged opposition of India’s Muslims was said to make any visible rapprochement with Israel impossible. It was assumed that all Indian parties had to preserve their Muslim voting blocs.
From the 1920s onward, the Congress Party’s leaders Gandhi and Nehru regarded support for Palestinian Arabs as essential to appeasing Indian Muslim sensitivities and to preventing India’s partition. Even after partition in 1947, the Congress Party maintained its unwavering support for Palestinian Arabs. Presenting itself as secular, it denied its worry over the Muslim vote. It justified its public hostility to Israel with claims of morality and justice, and, during India’s leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and its quasi-alliance with the Soviet Union, with the struggle against imperialism and colonialism.
Modi’s sweeping victory has eroded the political deterrence power of India’s Muslims in regard to India’s foreign relations. However, Modi will not stay in power forever, and he seeks to gain the confidence of India’s Muslims too. But the message that a friend of Israel could indeed become the leader of India will not be lost in Indian politics, and widely beyond Modi’s own party. Modi’s Israel policies partly rely on the precedent, the earlier 1998 victory of his own BJP’s and its leader Atal Bijari Vajpayee in India’s general elections. While he was in power (1998-2004) Vajpayee improved relations with Israel, boosted military links, and invited Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for a 2003 state visit, the first such visit by an Israeli prime minister.
Modi is said to be a man who knows his mind, acts quickly, and is adept at imposing his will. His Israel policies confirm this image, so far. Hours after his election victory he had a warm, publicly announced telephone conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu. As a foreign minister he appointed Ms. Suchma Swaraj, who was chairwomen of the Indo-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group from 2006 to 2009. A number of defense-related decisions, almost certainly made by Modi himself, followed in the next few months. India ended the boycott of IMI (Israel Military Industries Ltd.) that resulted from past bribery allegations, paving the way for joint development of a new battle tank and other projects. This was followed by the clearing of a long-delayed sale of Israeli navy missiles, the closing of a large sale of Israeli anti-tank missiles (in spite of strong American competition), and the successful testing of a jointly developed aerial defense system. Both countries agreed to greatly increase cooperation on cyber-security and the fight against terrorism. In February 2015, Israeli Defense Minister Ya’alon paid an official visit to India, the first such visit by an Israeli defense minister, and met with Modi. India is probably the largest single market (according to one estimate, a quarter of the total) for Israel’s military exports. In parallel to the stepping up of defense links, scientific-technological and economic exchanges have also kept growing. In 2014, non-military bilateral trade amounted to 4.6 billion dollars.9 Trade experts predict at least a doubling of this figure if a long-delayed free trade agreement between the two countries is signed.
While the increase in military and civilian trade can be seen as an acceleration of existing trends, 2014 saw several landmark events that suggest a turning point in India’s political attitude toward Israel. In the midst of the Gaza war in summer 2014, the Indian government refused – for the first time ever – to condemn Israel’s military actions. On July 15, 2014, the Lokh Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament, was in an uproar as the opposition parties, demanding a condemnation of Israel, walked out in protest. “Domestic politics should not affect our foreign policy,” admonished the government’s parliamentary affairs minister.11 In plain words: Muslims and communists no longer dictate India’s Israel policies. The reversal stunned many. Thus, it should not have come as a surprise that a few days later, on July 23, 2014, India voted with most other countries for a UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for an investigation of alleged Israeli war crimes. It was said that India had come under great pressure to vote with the majority. This diplomatic contradiction could be a sign of things to come. On November 29, Modi and Netanyahu had a cordial public meeting at the UN in New York. It was the first meeting between the leaders of the two countries in eleven years. Apart from its widely noted symbolic significance, the meeting included an extensive discussion about future cooperation. Modi did not meet the Palestinian leader Abu Mazen who attended the UN at the same time. India’s policy change seems profound, but it is still too early for long-term predictions. Will it last? Will Modi visit Israel?
American Jewish representatives and Jewish congressmen have argued with India, from the 1950s on, first to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, which happened in 1992, and since then to broaden those relations. American Jewish influence in the U.S. Congress has helped India overcome political hurdles on more than one occasion. Even under Modi, the involvement and support of American and other, e.g. Australian, Jews will remain important. Among other reasons, they can widen links with Indian constituencies that are more difficult for Israel to reach, such as the Muslims, and they could find the resources for a necessary Jewish cultural policy in India, which Israel currently lacks.
The international media has paid more attention to improving Indo-Israeli relations than to Sino-Israeli relations. India’s soft power, the “Magic of India” as the British called it, is still alive and strong. Former U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer spoke of Indo-Israeli links as a proof that Israel was not as isolated as many have believed.
A number of problems and issues require attention. If solved they would facilitate links between the two countries, and if not, they could impede them.
- The Arab world and Palestine will not disappear from India’s diplomatic agenda, even if they become less important than in the past. If Israel’s Arab and Palestinian relations become more hostile, India will not be able to ignore local and international reactions. Nor can India ignore its enormous economic trade and investment interests in the Muslim Middle East, including its 4-5 million workers there. A renewal of the peace process would help ensure the continuation of the Indo-Israeli rapprochement.
- India expects a great deal from Israel, which it regards as a great power in science, technology, and innovation. If Israel does not respond sufficiently to Indian expectations, disappointment will set in and the current enthusiasm could dissipate. The Israeli bureaucracy has not yet given Israel’s link with India all the required attention. Some well-informed Israelis believe the free trade agreement’s long delay is as much Israel’s fault as India’s. Israel should regard India as a strategic priority and endeavor to overcome bureaucratic hurdles.
- India is a very diverse country – politically, ethnically, and religiously. Modi’s absolute majority could be a temporary exception in Indian politics rather than the rule. It is essential that Israel reach out to the Congress Party, currently India’s opposition party, and individual state governments. Jewish people organizations should pursue relations with India’s moderate Muslims. These constituencies lost political power in 2014 but could very well gain it back.
- A majority of Indians know little about Jews, Judaism, Israel, or the Holocaust. No more than two or three university lecturers in all of India’s universities teach about Israel or Judaism. It is urgent for Israel and the Jewish people to increase their cultural and intellectual presence in India by creating Israel and Judaism study centers in universities and establishing a Jewish culture and history center in Delhi or Mumbai.