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India, Israel and the Jewish People

Cold War period: recognition without normalization

The modern states India and Israel emerged within a year of one another, both on territories formerly administered by Great Britain. As anticipated by the Indian Congress Party’s negative attitude toward Zionism since the 1920s, relations between the two newly born countries did not get off to a good start. In 1947, India was the only major non-Muslim country to reject the UN partition plan for Palestine, along with all Muslim countries and two smaller countries, Cuba and Greece. In 1949, it voted against Israel’s admission to the UN. It delayed official recognition of Israel until September 1950, over two years after the Jewish state proclaimed independence, and even then did not grant it full diplomatic status; it only allowed Israel to open a consular office in Bombay in 1953. Despite some contacts and occasional Israeli military aid, India’s policies and pronouncements remained for more than forty years resolutely hostile to Israel and supportive of Arab positions. It was only on January 29, 1992 that Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao officially announced the establishment of full diplomatic ties with Israel.

Initially, budgetary considerations may have precluded India’s opening of a representative office in Israel, although if India had really wanted it could have appointed an ambassador to Israel in a nearby country. Even in the mid-1950s, the lack of resources forced the Indian government to have its ambassador to Egypt concurrently accredited to Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. But financial constraints cannot explain India’s long-lasting hostility toward Israel.

As said already, the main constraint explaining India’s refusal to normalize relations with Israel till 1992 was the “Muslim factor,” operating concurrently at domestic and regional levels. Ideological considerations played an equally decisive role. India, like China, carries no negative historical or religious baggage with respect to Jews. It provided them with a uniquely hospitable environment throughout the centuries. The founding fathers of modern India, Gandhi and Nehru, knew that Jews had often been persecuted in other parts of the world and were not insensitive to their yearnings for statehood: “It is one of the wonders of history how the Jews, without a home or a refuge, harassed and persecuted beyond measure, and often done to death, have preserved their identity and held together for over 2000 years (…) Everywhere they went they were treated as unwelcome and undesirable strangers,” wrote Nehru in the 1930s, even prior to the Holocaust.1 But in stark contrast to China’s revolutionary and first president, Sun Yat-sen, Gandhi and Nehru rejected the Jews’ right to return to their ancient homeland to become a sovereign nation again.

In 1921, one year after Sun Yat-sen had applauded the Zionist program, Gandhi declared: “The Jews cannot receive sovereign rights in a place which has been held for centuries by Muslim powers by right of religious conquest.”2 Nehru claimed that despite the deep attachment the Jews had for the “Holy Land” of Palestine, this land could not become theirs because it was “already somebody else’s home … we must remember that Palestine is essentially an Arab country, and must remain so.”3 Gandhi and Nehru’s rejection of the partition of Palestine was closely linked to their opposition to establishing a separate country for Indian Muslims in British India. They feared that a partition of Palestine might also serve as a model for India’s future.4 The Indian Congress Party wanted a secular and undivided Indian state and opposed the All-India Muslim League’s religious separatism. It could not both denigrate the idea of a separate Muslim nation in India and endorse Jewish national aspirations in Palestine. This all the less so because Indians generally did not understand that Judaism is not only a religion but also a civilization, a people, a nation. Thus, while the All-India Muslim League used Islam to rationalize support for the Palestinians, the Indian Congress Party used the rejection of religious separatism and the belief in secularism to explain why it too supported the Palestinians and rejected the proposed Jewish state. Thus, in India, Zionism got the worst of both worlds. The rivalry between the Congress Party and the All-India Muslim League before independence continued after independence as Indo-Pakistani rivalry. Both countries rejected Israel and refused to have relations with it, with India citing its secular logic and Pakistan its Muslim solidarity. India’s official secular ideology created a curious tradition of denial and obfuscation, which has been laid bare by P.R. Kumaraswamy. According to him, it prompted Indian representatives and large parts of the elites to deny that the Muslim factor was the decisive driver of India’s hostility to Israel, lest admission of this all too obvious fact would dent India’s claim to be secular.

Logically, it then prompted them to insist that India’s unreserved support for the Palestinians was due only to India’s “genuine” feelings of justice and morality. Such denials and justifications have not completely disappeared in India, particularly in intellectual circles.

India’s leadership position in the Non-Aligned Movement, its fervent anti-imperialist and anti-Western foreign policy during the entire Cold War period, and its quasi-alliance with the virulently anti-Israel Soviet Union, cemented India’s position in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Following independence, most of India’s leadership did not yet perceive Israel as a colonialist power and outpost of the West, but also did not see it as part of the emerging Afro-Asian community. India rapidly yielded to Arab pressure when the Arabs threatened to boycott the 1955 Asian-African Bandung conference if Israel were invited. After the 1956 Sinai campaign, and even more so after the 1967 war, Israel’s place on India’s ideological world map became permanently fixed: it was a Western, colonialist, and imperialist outpost.

The 15 long years during which Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi ruled India (1966-77 and 1980-84) were the lowest point in in India’s attitude toward Israel. It was under Indira Gandhi’s rule that India supported the infamous 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism. The reason was not simply an inherited family tradition of hostility to Israel as some have alleged, but an increased need to be particularly cautious in regard to the Muslim and Arab world. In this respect, Indira Gandhi had indeed learned a thing or two from her father, Prime Minister Nehru. In a geo-strategic masterstroke of Bismarckian proportions, Indira Gandhi intervened in the 1971 civil war in East Pakistan. She helped set up the new, secessionist state of Bangladesh, defeated the Pakistani army, and eliminated it from India’s eastern flank – note that then Major General JFR Jacob, an Indian Baghdadi Jew, is known for having played an important role in the defeat and surrender of the Pakistani army in East Bengal. Thus, Indira Gandhi castrated India’s arch-foe, reduced it to the size of a local power, and set India on course to great power status. Her masterstroke was accompanied by a flood of moral justifications. This was one of the most shattering defeats the Muslim world suffered in the 20th century at the hand of non-Muslims. It looked like an irreversible defeat, in contrast to the Muslim and Arab defeats at Western and Israeli hands which in Muslim and Arab eyes could only be temporary. Indira Gandhi had every reason to soften her humiliating blow to Islam by conveying particular nastiness to Israel. In addition, Indira Gandhi moved ever closer to the Soviet Union, which raised the ire of Washington and made it very difficult for Israel and the Jewish people to show friendship for India.

India’s adverse attitude toward the Jewish state throughout the Cold War stands out in sharp contrast to its policy vis-à-vis the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) during the same period. India was, indeed, one of the first non-Arab and non-Muslim countries to recognize the PLO (1975). In 1980, the Indian government accorded the PLO representative office in New Delhi full diplomatic status and eagerly invited its chairman, Yasser Arafat, for an official visit. Full diplomatic recognition of the PLO thus preceded India’s normalization of relations with Israel by more than a decade.

The end of the Cold War and the normalization of relations

India was the last major non-Muslim country to normalize relations with Israel – just a few days after China in 1992.5 Only the Vatican and Ireland normalized relations with Israel later than India. The end of the Cold War opened the door for Indian leaders to engage in a process of rapprochement with the United States and Israel and deprived the Non-Aligned Movement of most of its original “raison d’être” and clout. The collapse of the Soviet Union led India to question the ideological, pro-Soviet orientation of its foreign policy, including in regard to its relations with Israel. In fact, the Soviet Union cleared the path just before its dissolution, by deciding to renew relations with Israel.

On the regional level, the fact that Egypt had already recognized Israel and established full diplomatic relations with it in the wake of the 1979 Camp David peace treaty 12 years earlier, weighed heavily on Indian deliberations. How long could India pretend to be more “Arab” than the largest Arab country? In 1991, the Madrid Conference opened the way for negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians, and several Arab nations. If India wanted to be taken seriously as a relevant power, including in the Middle East, it had to participate, and this meant that it needed relations with all the countries involved, including Israel. Also, the Palestinian and the Pakistani factors had lost some of their former weight. The PLO’s support for Saddam Hussein before and during the first Iraq War had greatly damaged the Palestinian position in the Arab world.

India’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel must also be seen as part of a massive change in India’s domestic and foreign policies in the early 1990s. After decades of retrenchment, India opened up to the wider – particularly Western – world. The country began to discard its Soviet-style economic planning and controls and endeavored to develop a more open market economy.

The importance of the United States for India increased enormously after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not only was the United States the sole superpower left standing in the international system, but beyond geostrategic concerns, India also needed its economic support as it was facing a serious balance of payment crisis. This forced it to solicit assistance from the then U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Indian leaders came to believe that normalization with Israel would facilitate India›s necessary rapprochement with the United States. India’s negative diplomatic posture toward Israel, indeed, had long been an impediment in its relations with the United States: “India’s anti-Israel position had alienated many of India’s ardent supporters in the U.S. Congress who were Jewish.”6 At the same time, the collapse of the Soviet Union had plunged India into a severe security and defense dilemma – the Soviet Union had supported India against Pakistan and China over the years, and, in 1991, it was meeting almost 80 percent of India’s military requirements. During the Cold War, even though full diplomatic ties were lacking, Israel agreed to provide India with valuable military and intelligence equipment and expertise on several occasions. Indian leaders – from the defense establishment in particular – were hopeful that normalization would facilitate and stimulate greater defense cooperation with Israel, and thus maintain and improve India’s military capabilities.

The Indo-Israeli rapprochement benefited from diminishing Muslim constraint on India’s domestic politics, as explained in the previous chapter. Opposition to closer ties with Israel was henceforth mainly concentrated in the Communist parties and other, more marginal political formations of the left.