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India’s Israel relations, the Middle East and China

India’s founding fathers, Gandhi and Nehru, showed great sympathy for the Jewish people but rejected Zionism and the creation of a Jewish state, in contrast to China’s first President Sun Yat- Sen who supported Zionism. Their rejection was born in India’s own predicaments. They feared that a partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state would become a precedent for a partition of India and the creation of a Muslim state, Pakistan. They wanted to prevent this eventuality at all costs. However, this is exactly what finally happened; India was partitioned. Yet even after this traumatic event, Indian concerns about Muslim sensitivities continued and hostility to Israel remained strong. This changed slowly only after 1992 when India finally established diplomatic relations with Israel – just a few days after China!

From 1947 until recently here were external and internal Muslim constraints on India’s potential or actual links with Israel. The external constraints related to India’s fear of hostile reactions from the Muslim Middle East. The internal constraints concerned possible local Muslim reactions and competition for the Muslim vote among the political parties before elections.

A great lot has changed since 1992. First, a technical revolution, fracking and other advances in oil and gas production have triggered a geopolitical revolution. The formerly dreaded energy-dependence has been turned on its head. With America moving towards energy independence and Europe importing most of its oil from Russia, the Gulf oil producers have only the Asia-Pacific region as their main markets. They depend on India, China, Japan and other states even more than they depend on the Middle East. Oil has lost its power as a political weapon and Israel has ceased to be an issue in the energy trade. Second, Indian diplomats began to understand that vocal hostility to Israel, e.g. in the United Nations, did not guarantee Arab neutrality whenever India clashed with Pakistan. Regardless of how loudly India condemned Israel – the Arabs always supported Pakistan. So, what do we receive in return from the Arabs, and why do we continue to shun Israel, Indians asked? Third, India began to grasp that its automatic support for every Arab and Muslim position against Israel in and outside the United Nations had created a perception that India was in the Arab pocket no matter what. The Arabs were not taking India seriously, states India’s leading Israel and Middle East expert P.R. Kumaraswamy.6 And fourth, India recently had to face the tension between Iran and the Arab world which raised enormous policy dilemmas for Delhi. India needed Arab Gulf oil much more then Iranian oil but it could not drop Iran for the reasons mentioned above.

India then understood that the Middle East’s central problem was not the Arab-Israeli  conflict as was widely propagandized, and that solving the Palestinian issue would solve none of the other more urgent problems of the Middle East, certainly not the century-old hostility between Shiites and Sunnis. All this indicates why India gradually improved its relations with Israel exactly during the two decades since 1992 – the same time period that saw the most rapid strengthening of its links with Saudi Arabia, Iran and the rest of the Muslim Middle East. It was a brilliant balancing act. At the beginning there was no link between India’s Israel and Arab policies, but later India could use Israel as a subtle reminder to the Muslim world that it had options and had to be taken seriously. India succeeded beyond expectations. India’s Muslims had barely reacted to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. They did not demonstrate when the openly pro-Israeli Hindu leader Modi was elected in 2014; the only loud protests then came from left-wing extremists. As to Muslim countries, it became clear that they did not wish to “hold their relations with New Delhi hostage to Indo-Israeli ties”, to quote Kumaraswamy. India, their largest neighbor for two thousand years, was simply too important for them and there was no historic baggage between the two sides. Contrary to the West, India never invaded and colonized the Middle East.

 

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[6] P.R. Kumaraswamy, India’s Israel Policy, New York, Columbia University Press, 2010, 242.

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