India and Israel

By Rodman, David | Midstream, May-June 2002 | Go to article overview

India and Israel

Rodman, David, Midstream

The historical parallels, ancient and modern, between India and Israel are striking. Both states are home to peoples that are thousands of years old--and to peoples whose traditions of national sovereignty are among the most venerable in the world. Yet, for centuries, neither people held sway in its own land, as colonialist forces from the Islamic East and Christian West occupied, settled, and exploited its territory. In the post-Second World War era, though, the indigenous peoples of both states have managed to reassert their sovereign existence. Moreover, in the face of constant and considerable internal and external threats over the course of their lifetimes, both India and Israel have remained vibrant democracies, tolerant toward ethnic and religious minorities deposited in their midst as a result of past imperial conquests.

Nevertheless, despite these historical parallels, India and Israel did not develop friendly ties after they gained their independence from Great Britain in the late 1940s. Indeed, India adopted a decidedly pro-Arab foreign policy, dismissing Israeli overtures for normal state-to-state relations. India's rejectionism stemmed from a mixture of pragmatic and ideological concerns related to its domestic and foreign policies. Internally, India has been saddled with a large and volatile Muslim minority. For the pragmatic reason of maintaining domestic tranquility (i.e., limiting the potential for Hindu-Muslim strife), New Delhi long felt it prudent to adopt a knee-jerk pro-Arab foreign policy. Why threaten to rock the boat, it reasoned, over high-profile relations with the Jewish state?

Externally, India has always sought allies in its ongoing conflicts with Pakistan and China. New Delhi long believed that the Arab world, with its diplomatic and economic clout in the international community, could be a very useful ally. Furthermore, in India's early decades, New Delhi also harbored a vision of becoming the leader of the so-called non-aligned movement--and, to be the leader of this movement, it had to gain the favor of the Arab world. If these potent domestic and foreign policy considerations are coupled with the Indian leadership's view of Israel as an insignificant and isolated state that had nothing of great value to contribute to India's well-being, New Delhi's decision to shun Jerusalem for decades seems quite predictable.

An estranged relationship, of course, does not imply no relationship whatsoever. India did grant Israel official recognition as early as 1950, and did allow Jerusalem to establish a consular presence in Mumbai (Bombay) several years later, even though New Delhi refused to station its own diplomats in the Jewish state. (1) A handful of meetings between senior Indian and Israeli officials took place over the years, but these contacts yielded no tangible breakthrough in relations. Beyond the glare of publicity, the Indo-Israeli relationship proved somewhat less tenuous. Indian and Israeli intelligence organizations entered into a working relationship in areas of mutual concern, and the Jewish state provided modest amounts of arms to India, particularly during times of Indo-Pakistani tension. Still, the Indo-Israeli relationship could hardly be called encouraging from Jerusalem's point of view.

In 1992, though, this situation began to change for the better, when India and Israel finally established full diplomatic relations. During the past decade, senior Indian and Israeli officials have been warmly welcomed in Jerusalem and New Delhi respectively. And high-level visits are likely to occur with increasing frequency in the future, as Indian and Israeli leaders continue to explore their common national interests. Moreover, the flowering of the Indo-Israeli political relationship has led to improved economic ties. (2) Because both states have large reservoirs of scientists and engineers, including many persons literate in the latest computer hardware and software, cooperation in the high technology sector has attracted much attention.

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