The overwhelming victory of Narendra Modi in India’s May election, a “landslide,” was warmly welcomed in Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Netanyahu was the first foreign leader to congratulate Modi. The relations between Israel and India have never been better. But those good relations have been a long time coming. The trajectory has been anything but smooth.
To see how much has changed, let’s go back in time, all the way back to November 29, 1947. On that date, the U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine was put to a vote; in the Asian-Pacific region, nine countries voted against partition. All of them, with one exception, were Muslim countries. That one exception was India, which was essentially voting against the creation of a Jewish state, even one that would have consisted of three non-contiguous tiny bantustans. And two years later, in 1949, India had not softened its opposition, and voted against admitting Israel to the United Nations. It did not recognize Israel as an independent state until 1950.
The most important meeting concerning Indo-Israeli relations for the next several decades took place not at the U.N., but in Bandung, Indonesia. Israel was not invited. This was the site in 1955 of the famous Bandung Conference, where 29 African and Asian nations met to declare that they would not belong either to the Western or the Soviet bloc, but to a new, non-aligned bloc. And among other measures, the conference’s political committee also unanimously adopted a ferociously anti-Israel resolution, which declared its support for “the Arab people of Palestine” (the “Palestinian people” had not yet been invented) and called for “the implementation of the United Nations decisions on Palestine and the achievement of the peaceful settlement of the Palestine question.” The “U.N. decisions” that were referred to in the resolution provided for the internationalization of Jerusalem, the ceding by Israel of certain border areas and agreement by Israel to the return of Arab refugees to their former homes. Given Israel’s military weakness in 1955, that resolution would have made Israel’s continued existence doubtful, and certainly showed a palpable want of sympathy for the Jewish state. It is true that India’s Nehru did express sympathies for the Jews as victims of the Nazis in Europe, but as the representative of India, he voted for the anti-Israel resolution at Bandung with all the rest.
For decades following, India remained lukewarm, at best, to Israel. It consistently rebuffed Israel’s request for diplomatic ties. Israel, for its part, never stopped trying to reach out to India. Few may realize that Israel supplied military assistance — weapons and intelligence — to India during its conflicts with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965. In 1971, India quietly asked for, and again received, Israeli military aid, for use in the Bangladesh War. During none of this time, however, did India evince a more pro-Israel attitude. In fact, India continued to deepen its pro-Arab stance and demonstrated increasing hostility toward Israel. This process accelerated with the election of Indira Gandhi in 1966, partly because of the support she needed from the small parties, including the Communists. As the Soviet Union was then hostile to Israel, and wooing the Arabs, the Indian Communist Party took the same approach. Indira Gandhi’s government, needing the votes of the Communists, found it made sense to keep Israel at arm’s length, while Indian support for the Arabs increased. By the 1970s, such support for the Palestinian cause had solidified, and India’s relationship with Israel worsened. After the Arab League recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the “sole and legitimate” representative of the Palestinians in 1974, India quickly followed suit and permitted the PLO to open an independent office in New Delhi that was elevated to embassy status in 1980. The PLO provided nothing of tangible value to India, unlike Israel, which had aided India in three of its wars. Nonetheless, it was not until 1992, twelve years after the PLO opened its office, and four years after India extended recognition to the “state of Palestine,’that Israel was permitted to open an embassy in India.
A quarter-century later, things are very different. The relations between Israel and India have been called “the most important new alliance in Asia.” India is Israel’s second largest trading partner in Asia, after China. Israel is a world leader in many of the areas where India most needs outside help: anti-missile weaponry, water management (for agriculture and for drinking), cyber-warfare (remember Stuxnet?) and cyber-security. As of now, Israel is India’s second largest supplier (after Russia) of weapons. In 2015 Israel signed with India the largest single contract in its own defense industry’s history, for MRSAM, an advanced air and missile defense system. The latest version of MRSAM is now being used by the Indian Air Force, the Indian Navy, and the Israel Defense Forces. Israel and India collaborate in anti-terrorism measures of every kind. India agreed in 2017 to buy 8,000 Spike anti-tank missiles from Israel, choosing it, despite heavy lobbying by Washington, over the American-made Javelin. India has also chosen Israel’s Barak-8 air defense missiles for the Indian navy. Israeli and Indian experts collaborate ever more closely on missile development, on anti-terrorism measures, and, increasingly, on cyber-warfare, both offensive and defensive. For its part, Israel seeks greater collaboration with the Indian navy, that patrols the sea between India and Arabia, in order to ensure the security of the sea lanes on which so much of Israel’s trade with Asia depends.
Along with its high-tech weaponry, its famed intelligence services, its counter-terrorism experience, all of use to India — which must worry about both its large Muslim population and its hostile Muslim neighbor Pakistan, with whom it has fought four wars, in 1947, 1965,1971, and 1999, and many smaller conflicts — Israel is also a world leader in water management (drip irrigation, desalinization, recycling of “grey water”), for both agriculture and drinking. In agriculture, again of great importance to India., Israel has set up, in various parts of India, Centers of Excellence, demonstration projects of the latest ways to increase crop yields, to lower water demands, and even to encourage Indian farmers to grow new crops. Israel has already set up a demonstration olive farm in the Punjab, to see if olives from Israel, though new to the subcontinent, can become a viable export crop for India. The timing is right for olives and olive oil to become an important source of revenue for India, because of the great damage the pathogen Xilella fastidiosa has done since 2013 to olive trees in Italy, Corsica, southern France, and Spain.
Finally, there continues to be an increase in person-to-person exchanges, between India and Israel, in education and tourism. Ten percent of the foreign students in Israel are from India. And India is a favored destination for young Israelis once they have completed their military service. This creates ties of warmth between Israelis and Indians at the human level.
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