While India is the world’s most populous democracy, Israel is the Middle East’s most notable. Relations between democratic countries can be strained on particular issues, but the underlying strength remains resilient. Judaism and Hinduism are among the world’s ancient civilizations and “root faiths” that have given birth to other major religions. They are similar in their emphasis on the practice of rituals as an integral element of their respective faiths, and the distinctive Jewish humor also resonates well in India. India’s tradition of hospitality toward the Jewish people is centuries old. Even in the Hindu-Muslim butchery at the birth of independent India, Jews were not harmed.
India’s relationship with Israel, which gained independence within a year of India’s in a similarly traumatic partition, was a major anomaly. One of the earliest to recognize Israel, India was one of the last to establish full ambassadorial relations with it in 1992. Full relations were maintained with China and Pakistan, countries with which India has major territorial conflicts and has fought wars — but not with Israel, with whom India had no direct quarrel.
The policy of distance provoked Israeli resentment and U.S. cynicism about India’s moral authority, but without materially assisting the Palestinian cause or buying Arab goodwill when it mattered. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, conceded in 1958 that his Israel policy was not “a matter of high principle.” It was based on preindependence sympathy by the Congress Party for the Arabs, a perception of Israel as a settlement imposed on the Arabs by outgoing colonial powers, the higher number of Arab votes at the United Nations instead of the solitary Israeli vote, an attempt to avoid the full weight of Arab support going to Pakistan, and sensitivity to Indian Muslims, who make up 12 per cent of the country’s own population.
The nonpolicy on Israel sometimes degenerated into petty petulance: a refusal to permit the Indian tennis team to play a Davis Cup tie against Israel, or the refusal to permit an Indian film to be screened at an Israeli film festival or even let the film director attend the festival. In 1993, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to perform in Bombay and New Delhi. India, describing Jerusalem as a disputed city, insisted that the orchestra drop “Jerusalem” from its name; the orchestra dropped the India visit instead.
At other times, India’s quixotic policy on Israel produced odd strategic choices. Much criticized at the time for taking out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, Israel has been amply vindicated since. Apparently in the early 1980s, Israel thrice proposed to India that the two should jointly attack and destroy Pakistan’s nuclear plant at Kahuta. The Israeli Air Force was confident of achieving the pinpoint accuracy needed to destroy the facility, but needed refueling facilities in western India because of the distances involved.
Like Shakespeare’s Caesar with the kingly crown, India thrice refused: Enmity should be made of sterner stuff. Israel concluded that India’s hesitation stemmed from Soviet pressure and an unwillingness to compromise its paper status as a nonaligned leader. Thus India has shown neither the political courage to address and resolve the Kashmir problem through bilateral dialogue with Pakistan, nor the courage of its convictions in viewing its neighbor as an enemy.
In a book published in 1994 (“The Politics and Economics of India’s Foreign Policy”), having described India’s Israel policy as neither principled nor pragmatic, I argued that they had many common interests: “India could also learn much from Israel and the United States on how to combat the scourge of domestic and international terrorism.”
How things have changed! India and Israel discovered common concerns in the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Central and Southwest Asia, and by the end of the 20th century they were truly united in the trauma of terrorism as an everyday reality. High-level and well-publicized delegations now exchange visits all the time; security cooperation seems to be deepening and broadening; bilateral trade is thriving (albeit from a low base); Israel is India’s second-best military supplier after Russia; and within the foreseeable future, India could become Israel’s best market for military sales.
In an article in the New Republic in February this year, Yossi Klein Halevi argued that as well as shared interests and fears India and Israel have discovered a common purpose, and young Israelis have fallen under the spell of the romance of India. Over the past decade over a quarter-million Israelis, mostly young people, have visited India.
Ironically, the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 last year drove India and Israel closer together almost in common resentment of U.S. courtship of Islamic countries that were countries of concern in their history of harboring cross-border terrorism. They shared the sense that Sept. 11 was probably a one-off attack on the U.S., whereas for them cross-border terrorism is a life and death struggle in the immediate vicinity. Of course, critics of India and Israel would argue that the policies of both countries contribute to the growth and sustenance of militant resistance against them.
India’s quest for intimate relations with the U.S. is helped by close relations with Israel. Good relations between the U.S., the European Union, Israel, India and Japan, linked appropriately to Southern Hemisphere democracies but not directed against any specific countries or groups, would form a powerful and influential arc of democracies encircling the globe. It might also make for an effective firewall against global terrorism.
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