*A “Natural Alliance”:  India, Israel, the United States, and the Muslim in the National Imaginary


Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi shortly after Modi’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, 4 July 2017. Source: Times of Israel.

As Israel prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its founding on May 14, 1948, the transformation in its relationship with India over the course of the last seven decades offers a palpable demonstration of the fact that there are no permanent foes or friends in politics.  India voted with Arab states in opposition to the UN Partition Plan that divided Palestine into two states, and formal diplomatic relations between India and Israel date back only to 1992.  Yet today India, the world’s second largest importer of arms and accounting for 9.5% of the global total, is Israel’s largest arms market just as Israel is the second largest exporter, after Russia, of arms to India.  Over the past decade, Indian imports of Israeli arms have increased by 285 percent.  In July 2017, Narendra Modi not only became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, but he pointedly, unlike Indian cabinet ministers on previous official visits, did not go to Palestine—not on that trip. Benjamin Netanyahu returned the compliment with the following official pronouncement on 13 January 2018:  “This evening I am leaving on an historic visit to India.  I will meet with the Prime Minister, my friend Narendra Modi, with the Indian President and with many other leaders. . . . We are strengthening ties between Israel and this important global power.  This serves our security, economic, trade and tourism interests . . . This is a great blessing for the state of Israel.”


Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara by his side tries his hand at a spinning wheel — where else but at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, January 2018. With devoted followers such as these, Mohandas Gandhi scarcely needs any enemies. Source of the photograph: Times of India.

It must have made Indians proud to hear their country being described as an “important global power”, but it isn’t one.  Nor should it be a fact of life that being one such power is necessarily a virtue:  “the meek shall inherit the other”, says one revered text, though I am fully aware of the modern wisdom which thinks that virtue only belongs to those nations which are “important global powers”.  But let us leave aside these esoteric considerations for the present.  There are yet other, often little considered, registers of the friendly ties developing between India and Israel: along with an influx of Israeli arms, young Israeli men and women have poured into India for long stays. According to the Jerusalem Post, so many young Israeli citizens swarm to India to enjoy a post-military training repose that one can now chart a “Hummus Trail” through various Indian landscapes and a proliferation of restaurants serving local kosher cuisine.  Israel’s own Foreign Ministry has reported that there is more support for Israel in India than in any other country of the world, the United States not excepted.  In one study, 58% Indians expressed support and admiration for Israel, exceeding the 56% Americans who responded in like fashion.

The bonhomie between the two nations is all the more remarkable considering the frosty relations between the two nations at the time of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.  One might think that India, with the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, did not want to antagonize its own Muslim population and was indeed keen to cultivate the idea that India would remain a home for Muslims even after Pakistan had been carved out of the country.  Nor, as a country heavily dependent on oil imports, could India afford to antagonize Muslim-majority Arab states or Iran—all of which, for decades after the creation of Israel, displayed unremitting hostility to the Jewish state.  As one of the principal architects of the idea of non-alignment, Nehru was also wary of close relations with a U.S.-friendly Israel.  Some might think that India, not unlike most other countries, surrendered to anti-Semitism in not having diplomatic ties with Israel for well over four decades.  But nothing could be further from the truth:  as every scholar of global Jewish history knows, India, with a history of Jewish presence dating back to perhaps as early as 79CE, is nearly singular in having absolutely no history of anti-Semitism and, to the contrary, in having a clear historical record of offering hospitality to Jews.  Nathan Katz, author of the scholarly study, Who are the Jews of India? (UC Press, 2000), unequivocally states that “Indian Jews never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination”, and lived “as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”


The emergence of an India-Israel nexus, and, as is becoming patently clear, a tripartite alliance of India, Israel, and the United States, owes everything to the changing place of the Muslim in the national imaginary of India and the United States.  It was in the mid-1990s that the notion of Israel and India as two democracies surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations that had an aversion to democracy, and having in common the problem of communal violence, first arose.  The Indian middle class, I suggested in a piece published in the Indian magazine Outlook in 2006 entitled “Emulating Israel”, has long admired Israel as a tough, no-nonsense state with zero tolerance for terrorism from which India—a comparatively soft state in this imagination—can learn to confront the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and, as Hindu nationalists increasingly argue, Muslim fifth columnists within the country.  Middle class Indians have long demanded an aggressive response against terrorists (and, as they argue, their patrons in Pakistan) and they hold up Israel as a country that India should emulate.

It is also no secret that India furnishes sinecures to retired Israeli army generals who serve as consultants to anti-terrorist operations in India.  In 2000, when L. K. Advani, then the Minister of Home Affairs in the BJP-led government, visited Israel, the two governments pledged to stand together against terrorism.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, on his aforementioned visit to India in January 2018, pointedly harkened back to both the devastating terrorist attacks on Mumbai’s suburban train network in 2006 that killed 209 people and the grisly attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in 2008 that led to 166 fatalities.  It is no surprise, then, that one Indian academic has called attention to the “ideological convergence” between India’s BJP and Israel’s Likud Party since “both promote a narrative of their respective populations being victims at the hands of Muslims.”

Matters do not, however, end here:  we can now speak of an emerging tripartite alliance between India, the US, and Israel, the logic of which has been captured by one scholar of public policy, Vivek Dehejia:  “India, Israel, and the United States are natural allies. All three are democratic and pluralistic societies, and all have suffered grievously from the scourge of Islamic terrorism.”  One might question a good deal in this assessment, such as what it means for three very diverse countries to be deemed “natural allies”—and why only these three democracies?  The US, to raise another difficulty, appears to be suffering from the scourge of white supremacism, not “Islamic terrorism”.  For Dehejia to imply that Palestinians are but a synonym for “Islamic terrorism”, which appears to be the case from his formulation, is objectionable in the extreme, even if one were to agree that Hamas is, notwithstanding its façade as a social welfare organization, at the very least a quasi-terrorist outfit.  But questions of the merit of his observations apart, what is most striking is that countries such as Pakistan, and the Muslim world more broadly, may be taking notice of this tripartite alliance. The Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Raza Rabbani, in a speech in January 2018 warned his fellow legislators about the “changing world scenario” and described the developing “nexus between the US, Israel, and India” as “a major threat to the Muslim world.”

Is it then the foreign policy wisdom in India, Israel, and the United States that these three democracies are, or ought to be, united by the menace posed by Muslim extremists?  To what extent are these countries collaborating in anti-terrorist and surveillance activities, more particularly with the thought of containing “Muslim terrorists”, and might such collaboration have implications for the exercise of their democratic rights by Muslim residents of these nations?  If India’s friendly relations with Israel on the one hand, and its growing ties with the U.S. on the other, augur new trilateral links, can we speak of such an alliance as a new force in geopolitics?  And, if we can, what might be the implications of such an alliance for the global world order?          

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at abplive.in on 13 May 2019, under the title:  “India, Israel, and the Geopolitics of an Emerging Tripartite Alliance, accessible here.)                                 

8 thoughts on “*A “Natural Alliance”:  India, Israel, the United States, and the Muslim in the National Imaginary

  1. It is quite ironic that, though they claim to detest “Islamic terror”, both Trump and Modi have developed an extremely close relationship to the Saudi Arabian regime which has largely been responsible for promoting the Wahhabi ideology. Wonder if they see this dissonance. Perhaps the tripartite alliance you speak of has a fourth member lingering in the background: Saudi Arabia.


    • Hi Rahul,
      One could certainly add Saudi Arabia to the alliance by your line of reasoning, but Saudi Arabia doesn’t even pretend to be a democracy. India, Israel and US are “democracies”, howsoever nominally as some might say: the alliance is also based on this notion of democracies which are, at least in the case of India and Israel, oases in their respective deserts. But, yes, the configuration of Saudi Arabia into all this is an ample demonstration of the axiom with which the essay commences, namely that there are no permanent friends or foes in politics. The Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia and the Jewish state of Israel get along just fine these days.


  2. The Jews are very smart people. They are an extremely intelligent and intellectual lot that has placed a high cultural value on education and scholarship since the beginning. They will definitely reach a stage of dominance in the world. While the West has felt threatened by Jewish intelligence, we in India should view it as a natural gift to their race and admire them for it.


    • As someone who has spent my entire life at universities, I am certainly aware of, and admire, the emphasis on learning and education among the Jewish people. But I don’t think it is desirable for anyone to reach a state of “dominance” in the world, and Jews certainly don’t desire such dominance either.


  3. Each country states its opposition to islamic violence (despite the ties to saudi arabia) but in many instances find it easy to justify their own violence towards that group and others. I am wondering what these alliances mean for the concept and influence of monopolized violence. Within each of their politics there are political figures who have committed atrocities of their own, some even convicted of them. Yet, in some instances their violence becomes either purposefully or subconsciously ignored or even accepted. These countries solidarity against islamic violence seems enthusiastically upheld among their people while any counter hegemonic violence is thoroughly rejected. I wonder how the alliance will shape the politics of the middle east and its strategies in resistance to western hegemony.


  4. This relationship becomes more evident considering the United States’ response to the February 26th airstrike by IAF. The United States sanctioned Visa renewals to Pakistanis residing in the US, adding to the agitation from last year when the US cut aid to Pakistan by up towards $3 billion. This aid was supposed to serve as repayments to Pakistan for their financial losses and sacrifices during the War on Terror. This one-sided approach in a complex conflict makes the United States more than a global police watchman state – a state that pours gasoline on fires. “…there are no permanent foes or friends in politics” is very true, but so is the need for a common enemy.


  5. A very interesting article about the geopolitics of our time. Fascinatingly and ironically, while India has historically been free of anti-Semitism, as you discuss, the most striking example of what we may call “anti-Semitism” coming from Indian thinkers comes from the very Hindutva ideologues who were the ideological predecessors of Modi and the BJP as their ideology took unabashed inspiration from Nazism. V. D. Savarkar and M. S. Golwalkar had praised Hitler and Nazism, praised the Holocaust as a “national movement”, called the Jews a threat to Germany and the “German race”, justified the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and, in the case of Golwalkar, even said that India should emulate what Germany had done to the Jews. It is quite ironic, then, that this warming of India-Israel relations is happening at a time when a Hindutva dispensation sits in New Delhi and is still quite proud of these ideological roots (Modi wishes to give Savarkar the Bharat Ratna, I believe).


  6. Muslims are the ‘enemies of convenience’ for both India and Israel, and the friendly relations between them despite India’s past history with Israel clearly shows the idea that there are no true friends in geopolitics, only interests. Both the BJP and Likud are religiously nationalistic, the former being Hindu nationalist and the latter being hardline Zionist. Both paint Muslims as a mortal enemy, backed Pakistan for India and the Arab states for Israel. This alliance serves to support the legitimacy and voter popularity of the rulings party of both states. However, I still believe that this is purely a geopolitical construction of convenience. Even though India historically has few to no examples of anti-Semitism, I find it hard to believe that India would not sacrifice relations with Jews or Israel if it benefitted its own interest.


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