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India, Israel and the Jewish People

Steady progress since 1992, and a sea change in 2014

Political and diplomatic relations between India and Israel have made substantial headway since normalization. From 1992 onward, there have been frequent bilateral visits of government officials and a wide range of cooperation agreements have been signed. In 1996, Israel’s president, Ezer Weizman, made a high-profile state visit to India. However, it was the formation of a BJP-led government under the premiership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee after the 1998 election victory that boosted relations between India and Israel as no other single event ever had before. It made possible the most important visit by an Israeli leader to India, that of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in September 2003, only a few months after Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was received by New Delhi as the chief guest of India’s Republic Day Parade. The timing of these two visits may have been a means for India to display its determination to continue balancing interests and ties between Iran and Israel, and a way to warn both countries that they could not expect India’s excusive support and attention. In addition, the timing of the Israeli prime minister’s visit to India, during the commemoration of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was also imbued with powerful symbolism. Ariel Sharon held talks on a wide range of issues with Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee and other senior Indian officials, resulting in the signature of six bilateral agreements and the release of a joint declaration, in which the common fight against international terrorism figured prominently.7 Sharon’s visit to India also accelerated Indo-Israeli defense ties.

When India’s Congress Party returned to power between 2004 and 2014, progress in visible political relations between the two countries stalled. The only high-level visit from India’s central government was that of Foreign Minister Krishna in January 2012 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. However, visits by politically lower profile Indian government ministers responsible for specific sectors, such as trade or tourism, have not been affected. In fact, the number of such visits grew.8

Beyond high-profile visits and the finalization of agreements at the national level, bilateral ties have greatly benefited from direct links between specific Indian state governments and the Israeli government and private sector. Generally, the last two decades have been marked by an increasing shift of power in India from the federal to state levels. Chief ministers of several Indian states – including Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, and Maharashtra – have come to Israel with high-level delegations and have been at the forefront of developing cooperation with the Jewish state, especially in the fields of agriculture, water and other technologies, and the sciences. It has been easier for Indian state government officials to overcome the political constraints still weighing on the development of ties with Israel and to pursue, rather successfully, their primarily economic agenda out of the public eye.

With Narendra Modi’s 2014 election victory, the BJP returned to power a decade after it had lost to the Congress Party. From the beginning, Modi made it clear in word and deed that he planned to strengthen Indo-Israeli relations not only in the military, technological, and economic sectors where they were already good, but also in the political and diplomatic fields where relations had been distant. The first highly visible, unprecedented official demonstration of this policy was the state visit of India’s President Pranap Mukherjee to Israel in October 2015. In his speech before the Israeli Knesset Mukherjee reminded his audience that both India and Israel are very ancient civilizations with common bonds going back 2,000 years. Indians like to recall the historical and cultural background of contemporary political links. They do it often when commending their good relations with the Arab countries and Iran. Maybe Israel does not sufficiently appreciate that it has assets in India beyond science and technology.9

Major Constraints

The Muslim factor
Beyond simple electoral and geopolitical considerations, the Indian government has to be wary of any move that might offset the delicate balance between Muslims and Hindus that is critical to the stability of Indian society. It avoids stirring up volatility in this relationship, which has sometimes resulted in violent confrontations between the two communities.

However, it was already noteworthy in 1992 that the bulk of Indian Muslims barely reacted at all to the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel. There were a few protests but no major violence. The same absence of major anti-Israeli reactions could be observed after Modi’s was elected prime minister in 2014. Still, ever since normalization, Congress Party leaders have kept relations with Israel discrete because the links between the two countries, particularly in the defense and security fields, have more than once come under attack by Indian Muslim organizations. Over the course of the three armed conflicts between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza in 2009, 2012 and 2014, and the 2010 Turkish flotilla raid, activists from Indian Muslim groups have staged anti-Israel protest rallies calling on the Indian government to sever relations with the Jewish state.

In its external dimension, the Muslim factor relates to India’s interdependence with the Middle East. In its bilateral relations with all Arab states, including those with no oil, India’s public statements generously supported the Arab stand against Israel as long as the Congress Party was in power. A remarkable display of this attitude came during the 2010 state visit of Indian President Pratibha Devisingh Patil to Syria, a country with no exportable oil and no particular economic or strategic value for India. The Indian president appeared at the Golan borderline between Syria and Israel, celebrated her country’s deep friendship with Bashar al-Assad’s repressive dictatorship, and backed Syria’s claims against Israel. In times of crisis, when violence has flared up between Israel and its neighbors, India has tended to blame Israel first. However, it was already possible to discern a subtle shift in India’s Israel blaming policies during the last years of Congress Party rule, and this might have helped to open the way to Modi’s policy change in 2014. The official statements released by the Indian government during Operation Cast Lead (2008/9) blamed Israel for the violence and for using “disproportionate” and “indiscriminate” force. India’s condemnation of Israel in the aftermath of the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident was no less severe.10 However, in both cases, India stood aside from the fiercest voices in the worldwide anti-Israeli chorus. However, official Indian government statements during Cast Lead reflected a more balanced view of the situation compared to the one-sided stance it took two years earlier with respect to the Second Lebanon War.11 The Indian government acknowledged the serious and provocative character of the rocket attacks launched against Israel. India’s more nuanced reaction to Cast Lead might also have been a message to Pakistan about cross-border terrorism.

This change in India’s blaming policies became apparent in its response to Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in November 2012. India’s relative balance and moderation, calling on “both sides to exercise maximum restraint,” were appreciated by Israeli diplomats.

It was during Operation Protective Edge, against missile attacks from Gaza, only two months after Modi’s victory in May 2014 that a much more radical shift of India’s position in favor of Israel became visible. The Indian government refused – for the first time ever – to condemn Israeli attacks against Gaza. On July 15, 2014 the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament, was in uproar as the Congress, Communist and Muslim opposition parties walked out in protest. “Domestic politics should not affect our foreign policy,” admonished the government’s parliamentary affairs minister, a precedent setting Indian government acknowledgement that India’s Israel policies had been deeply influenced by domestic Muslim concerns.12 There were other signs that change was in the air. One was a cordial and publicly announced phone conversation between the Israeli and Indian prime ministers, immediately after Modi’s election. An official Indian condemnation of missile fire from Gaza was another. Nevertheless, on July 23, 2014, India voted together with many other countries, in favor of a UN Human Rights Council resolution to set up a commission of enquiry into alleged Israeli “war crimes” in Gaza. This should not have come as a surprise. India did not wish to be the only other country to join the United States in opposing this resolution. Shortly after President Mukherjee’s 2015 visit to Israel, India voted a second time against Israel when it supported a one-sided UNESCO resolution that condemned Israel’s alleged “aggression” on the Temple Mount.13 Issues touching on Muslim sensitivities will remain relevant in India irrespective of the government in power. Prime Minister Modi cannot give the impression that he pursues exclusively Hindu policies.

However, on May 2, 2017, India abstained from a UNESCO vote about the Temple Mount that was critical of Israel. This new voting pattern indicates that henceforth neither side can take India’s vote for granted. India may decide on a case-by-case basis whether to abstain from anti-Israel votes or support the Muslim countries. What is important is that the long-term trend in India’s voting pattern is positive for Israel, and this started even before the BJP took power in 2014, in parallel to the mellowing of India’s “blaming policies.” Beginning in the early 1990s, India stopped participating with Arab and Muslim countries in the active promotion of anti-Israeli resolutions, and when it did vote against Israel it no longer made public statements calling attention to the fact, as was the case before 1990.

In the short and medium terms, India is unlikely to aspire to a major role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy. India’s approach, like China’s, differs fundamentally from that of Western countries. There have been no comprehensive Indian peace plans, no frantic interventions, and no high-level visits to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, this could change if India decides to use its growing weight in the Middle East in seeking greater influence. To prepare for this case, Israel and the Jewish people must ensure that India’s politicians and elites understand Israel’s concerns.

Of course, a lot may depend on Israel’s Arab and Palestinian policies. During Congress Party rule, most Indian politicians and diplomats genuinely disagreed with Israel’s policies in regard to the Palestinians. Their disagreement was not always a matter of political expediency, but of tradition and long-held convictions. Such convictions will be heard much less often while the BJP remains in power, but they will not disappear entirely. The Palestinian issue has, in the past, been excessively important in Indian diplomacy and in the opinions of its elites because it mirrored the internal and external dimensions of India’s Muslim factor.

The question, then, is whether Modi’s victory represents a watershed in Indo-Israeli relations that will become permanent. A look at long-term trends cannot give a final answer to this question, but they can indicate the main developments that must be watched. One decisive trend is the future of the Muslim factor. India’s Muslim population may continue growing more rapidly than the majority Hindu population. Muslim political power may become determinant in a number of key states as power continues to shift from the central government to state governments. And more Muslims may become radicalized. If these trends materialize, India’s new Israel policy may not be sustainable in the long term. However, against these – only possible, not certain – trends stand the deep socio-economic changes that explain Modi’s victory. He won the elections with the massive support of India’s young and of India’s middle and lower middle classes who ignored or rejected the traditional warning of India’s elites and the Congress Party that voting for the BJP was anti-Muslim. This urban, mostly non-Muslim middle class, currently over 300 million people, is projected to exceed 500 million by 2025, and represents the main countervailing trend to the possible growth of Islam in India. This middle class is modern, Western in outlook, and (with the exception of some intellectuals) not interested in Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict. This middle class is partly indifferent, and partly sympathetic to Israel. Modi’s victory demolished a long-held taboo in Indian politics: until 2014, it was taken for granted that a friend of Israel and the Jews – as Modi is known to be – could not become India’s leader because of Muslim constraint. With the Muslim deterrent power thus eroding, at least in the short and medium terms, other Indian politicians are likely to regard Israel in a new light. One could also imagine a scenario in which growing Muslim power and assertiveness – resulting from the first of the two possible major trends – will lead to a Hindu backlash, with or without BJP encouragement. The BJP’s victory has already encouraged Hindu assertiveness, if not extremism. During the 2014 Gaza war, 20,000 Hindus in Calcutta demonstrated noisily in support of Israel. Hindu extremists are generally enthusiastic Israel supporters, without any encouragement from Israel.

So much for the internal dimension of the Muslim factor. The primary external dimension is the likely increase of India’s interdependence with the Muslim Middle East due to expanding energy and economic links. This could become a positive challenge for Indo-Israeli relations if India begins to use its growing weight in the Middle East to push for real peace if possible, or security and stabilization if necessary. Could India’s growing interdependence with the Middle East also have negative consequences for Israel? The last quarter century saw this interdependence grow year-by-year while relations with Israel improved as well. So far, recent history does not point to a likely negative outcome for Israel.

The Indian left
After the Congress Party returned to power in 2004 as head of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, Israel became concerned that left-wing parties, whose parliamentary support was critical to the survival of the coalition, could succeed in moving the country away from Israel, especially in the military and security spheres. And indeed, when Manmohan Singh became prime minister, left-wing parties exerted internal and external pressures on the coalition to alter India’s Israel policy. During Operation Cast Lead and in the aftermath of the flotilla raid, leaders and activists from the left – in particular from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), together with militant Muslim groups, organized protest rallies against Israel in several Indian cities, calling for the Indian government to sever military relations, if not all ties, with the Jewish state. And yet, the Indian left failed to bring about any far-reaching changes in India’s Israel policy. Its overall influence over India’s foreign policy has diminished over the years, for various internal reasons, including its opposition to the India-U.S. civilian nuclear deal. The political weight of the left has decreased again since the 2009 and 2014 Indian general elections.

However, the Indian left’s posture on Israel continues to permeate the views of the Indian intellectual and cultural elites which have very little knowledge of Israel or Judaism, as appears in our review of the position of India’s English language novelists on Judaism and Israel (Chapter 4). This is a major problem that a much broader Jewish and Israeli cultural policy in India should address. A considerable part of the Indian intelligentsia has bought the one-sided Arab narrative of the expulsion of the Palestinians by Israel, but chooses to ignore the flight and expulsion of nearly all Jews from Arab lands and Iran. Still, the sympathy conveyed to the Palestinians does not express itself in hostility to or criticism of Jews in general, including the Indian Jews who immigrated to Israel. And until recently, even the most vocal critics of Israel did not call for its elimination, as is the case in some radical left-wing circles in the West. In India, in contrast to Europe particularly, new anti-Zionism is, so far, not linked to traditional anti-Semitism. It, therefore, may still be easier to mitigate, but this could change. In the last several years, foreign extremist Muslim and anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist Western agents and propaganda, together with their like-minded domestic Indian friends, have begun to agitate in India and have organized various boycott movements against Israel. Some of this agitation may be financed by oil-rich Gulf countries. Israel and its Indian friends will have to develop adequate responses to this agitation. There are also concerns that this may have ramifications for India’s few remaining Jews, their relationship with Indian Muslims in particular.

Looking Back at India under Congress Party Rule: A persistent lack of dialogue between India’s and Israel’s leaders
The 2014 BJP return to power has obviated the third constraint, which, in addition to Muslim and left-wing opposition, hampered Indo-Israeli political relations. Between 1948 and 2014 there was a near complete lack of direct dialogue between the senior political leaderships of the two countries, interrupted only by President Ezer Weizmann and Prime Minister Sharon’s short India visits in 1996 and 2003 respectively. This absence of high-level dialogue between two nearby countries with no direct conflicts of interest was unique in contemporary diplomatic relations. Until 2015, no Indian president or prime minister ever visited Israel. In the years before the change of government in India, Israel’s senior leadership – president, prime minister, foreign minister and even defense minister – were not welcome in India. In contrast, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas came on a three-day official visit to India in September 2012, his second state-visit to India. Many Indian politicians expressed a genuinely sympathetic view of Israel in private, but did not wish to be seen in public with Israeli leaders or make Indo-Israeli cooperation public. Domestically, the lack of high-level dialogue had consequences at lower levels as well. Israel’s links with political parties in India were one of the weaker points of the Indo-Israeli relationship. Some Indian politicians did not want to meet with Israeli diplomats, not least for fear of losing the Muslim vote.

Also, there was still a genuine political aversion to Israel by some Hindu politicians or their advisers. Nehru and Gandhi’s heritage of non-alignment and solidarity with the Arab world had not completely disappeared. Policy experts sometimes underestimate the effect of “personal chemistry” between political leaders. Their sympathies, antipathies, and personal prejudices can affect relations between states. In this respect, Israel had to cope with a difficult Indian heritage. Between 1947 and 2014, India was ruled – with large interruptions it is true – by the same small family that controlled the Congress Party. Apart from India’s objective geopolitical interests in the Muslim Middle East, antipathy to Israel has apparently been a family tradition, transmitted from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to his daughter Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, from her to her son Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (who, however, began to slightly modify India’s positions in regard to Israel), and from him, according to some sources, to his widow Sonia Gandhi, the current head of the Congress Party. If one change in India’s Israel policy can be predicted to be lasting, it is this one: It is very unlikely that any Indian government of the future will return to a policy of boycotting top-level dialogues with Israel.