India’s Alliance With Israel Is a Model for the World’s Illiberal Leaders
From arms deals to occupation in Kashmir and the West Bank, Modi and Netanyahu increasingly share the same ethnonationalist worldview.
In late November 2019, there was widespread outrage over a video of the Indian Consul-General in New York, Sandeep Chakravorty, in which he suggested to a gathering of Kashmiri Hindus that India should follow the Israeli model, and build settlements in the Kashmir Valley to secure the return of Hindus. Kashmiri activists and journalists were shocked by his apparent support for Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. But this is only one of many recent examples of a growing political love affair between India and Israel.
Ties between the two countries have not always been this friendly. In October 1937, a decade before Indian independence from British rule, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution that declared its support for the Palestinian national movement. It assured “the Arabs of the solidarity of the Indian People with them in their struggle for national freedom.” A year later, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that the “cry for the national home for the Jews” in Palestine had little appeal for him. He added: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.”
Maintaining this position after independence, India was one of only 13 countries—and one of only three non-Muslim countries—to vote against the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. India officially recognized the State of Israel in 1950, but relations between the two countries remained largely informal until the end of the Cold War. As one of the architects of the Non-Aligned Movement, India’s official allegiance remained with its Arab allies.
When Israel, the United Kingdom, and France invaded Egypt and sparked the Suez Crisis of 1956, India expressed its support for its nonaligned ally, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, and its stance against Western imperialism in the region. In 1974, India recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinians; it was the first non-Arab country do so. Of course, Israel enjoyed the strong support of the West while India had well-known political leanings towards the Soviet Union, so the two countries almost inevitably found themselves in opposing camps during the Cold War.
But with the fall of the Soviet Union, India embarked on a process of economic liberalization that included a drastic reduction in import tariffs and the removal of restrictions on foreign direct investment. India also saw this as an opportunity to reposition itself in a new world order, and in 1992 established formal diplomatic relations with Israel. As the doors of its embassy opened in Tel Aviv, India cautiously built its relations with Israel while maintaining its official commitment to the Palestinian cause.
Having already recognized the State of Palestine in 1988, India inaugurated its representative office in Gaza in 1996, which later moved to Ramallah. India also consistently voted in favor of the Palestinian position at the United Nations. This included the vote on the General Assembly resolution against Israel’s separation wall in 2003, for Palestine’s full membership of UNESCO in 2011, and for Palestine’s non-member observer status in the U.N. General Assembly in 2012.
At the same time, Indian-Israeli relations began to encompass a wide array of economic, technological, and strategic partnerships. In 2006, the Indian and Israeli agricultural ministries signed a Memorandum of Understanding, leading to the Indo-Israeli Agricultural Project which focused on increasing India’s agricultural productivity and water use efficiency. Bilateral trade has also increased from $200 million in 1992 to $5.84 billion in 2018. And, compared with the same period in the previous year, Israeli goods and services exports to India were up 4.6 percent in the first nine months of 2019.
However, the most significant facet of Indian-Israeli relations is a robust security-defense cooperation. The foundations of this cooperation were laid long before 1992. During the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion expressed his “fullest sympathy and understanding” and, on the request of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, supplied weapons to India. India sourced Israeli weapons during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971. Since the early days of its establishment in 1968, the Research and Analysis Wing—India’s external intelligence agency—has also maintained close relations with Israel’s Mossad.
Israel has replaced Russia as India’s preferred all-season weapons supplier. For instance, when India conducted nuclear weapons tests in 1998, it faced international condemnation. But while the Clinton administration imposed economic sanctions and banned the export of U.S. weapons and military technology, Israel refrained from criticizing India. Instead, over the years Israel worked on building its brand as a reliable, but apolitical, partner. During the Kargil War in 1999, it supplied the Indian Air Force with UAVs and surveillance systems. Israel also upgraded India’s aging, Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter jets and supplied Laser Guided Bombs and 160-mm mortar shells.
Today, Israel is second only to Russia as India’s largest weapons supplier. But while Russian supplies fell by 47 percent in 2015-2019, weapons imports from Israel increased by 175 percent. India is also the largest buyer of Israeli weapons, buying 46 percent of Israel’s exports. Both countries are part of the Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism and have signed agreements on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, cooperation in homeland security, protection of classified material, and cybersecurity. Indian Police Service trainees visit the Israel National Police Academy every year for training. The Indian Border Security Force uses Israeli-developed smart fencing systems as well as radar and surveillance technology in the volatile Kashmir valley.
In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, the Indian Ministry of Defense and its Israeli counterpart are also collaborating on developing a rapid testing system. And to this end, an Israeli delegation collected 20,000 samples from Indian COVID-19 patients in early August 2020.
India’s overtures toward Israel are no longer a low-key affair. It is something that India’s government and many Indians celebrate. In 2008, following the Mumbai attacks, Indian talking heads were already proposing the Israeli approach to fighting terrorism. A poll conducted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry in 2009 showed that 58 percent of Indians supported Israel and that India ranked above the United States (56 percent), Russia (52 percent), Mexico (50 percent), China (48 percent), and Italy (39 percent).
During Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2018 visit to India, his last evening in the country was marked by a special event “Shalom Bollywood” attended by Indian film industry heavyweights. At the event, Netanyahu declared, “We believe in Bollywood. The world loves Bollywood. Israel loves Bollywood. We want Bollywood in Israel. We are putting our money where our mouth is.” Drive—the Indian version of Fast & Furious—was released in November 2019 on Netflix; it is the first Hindi movie to be filmed in Israel. The scenes were shot in Tel Aviv and partly funded by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Tourism, with the expectation that a positive portrayal of Israel in Hindi films would boost tourism from India.
It wasn’t a coincidence that the Indian Consul General in New York was speaking to a gathering of Kashmiri Hindus. The return of exiled Hindus to Kashmir has long been central to the Hindu nationalist political agenda. And for the Consul General, Israel serves as a model for the way exiled people might reclaim their homeland. So, referring to the controversial revocation of Article 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution, Chakravorty described the move as an attempt to protect Hindu culture in Kashmir—not unlike the way Jewish people maintained their cultural identity in their years of exile.
He went on to declare: “The Kashmiri culture, is the Indian culture, it is the Hindu culture.” And it has been under the leadership of Hindu nationalist governments that Indian-Israeli relations have blossomed, as a majority of the most important diplomatic exchanges have taken place when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power in New Delhi.
Israel has always been popular among the Hindu right. In 1967, the Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Jana Sangh reacted to the Six Day War by drawing parallels between India and Israel. One of the founding fathers of the paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, may have once expressed his sympathies for Nazi Germany. But the present-day organization has repeatedly declared its support for efforts to strengthen India’s ties with Israel.
In 2016, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat voiced his admiration for the Jewish state when he said, “Israel was attacked by surrounding Islamic countries on five occasions, but the Israeli people repulsed their aggressions and extended their boundaries due to strong resolve to save motherland.”
But the electoral successes of the BJP have meant that what was once a fringe Hindu nationalist love affair with Israel has now become a matter of public policy. Officially, India now considers Israel a strategic partner as both countries—each under its right-wing leadership—position themselves as bastions of progress and democracy while surrounded by hostile Muslim nations. In this sense, they consider each other to be natural allies, engaged in a historic struggle against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalist forces.
It is no surprise then that StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy organization that publishes pamphlets in Hindi and the Israeli Consul General for South India Dana Kursh, reacted to India passing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by saying: “India as a sovereign nation has the right in enacting the CAA … India’s sovereignty is to be respected and she knows how to protect her people.” India, for its part, displayed the extent of its alliance with Israel when in June 2019 it voted against granting Palestinians consultative status in the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council. Responding to the vote—a historic shift in India’s usual, pro-Palestine voting record at the U.N.— Netanyahu tweeted, “Thank you @NarendraModi, thank you India, for your support and for standing with Israel at the UN.”
Trade, cultural exchange, and strategic partnerships—including the arms trade—are, of course, the building blocks of international relations. But as India now openly expresses (and celebrates) its support for Israel in international forums and Israel, in return, expresses its support for India’s controversial laws and constitutional amendments, it is evident that the India-Israel relationship is no longer purely a matter of realpolitik; it is also being strengthened by a shared ideology.
The consequences of this are significant. India, and its Hindu nationalist leadership, has found an ally that is willing to publicly support its widely criticized and often draconian political moves. At the same time Israel, has found an ally willing to cultivate a political, economic, and strategic partnership irrespective of its conduct towards Palestinians.
It may be too early to assess the long-term impact of such an alliance. Nonetheless, authoritarian leaders in Brazil, Russia, Hungary, Azerbaijan, and the Philippines have also upgraded their diplomatic relations with Netanyahu’s Israel. Today’s warm Indian-Israeli ties may soon become a model for strongmen across the world—an alliance that combines diplomatic cover in Washington with military support for populist leaders while easing the consequences of their illiberal ways.
Somdeep Sen is an associate professor of international development studies at Roskilde University in Denmark. Twitter: @ssen03