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.”
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.)