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Modi Walks a Political Tightrope With Israel

Long hesitant to have a diplomatic relationship with Israel at all, India now wants to get closer—but not too close.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy, and , an associate professor at Leiden University.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make a joint statement at Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on July 4, 2017.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make a joint statement at Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on July 4, 2017. Debbie Hill/AFP/Getty Images

In a tweet last week, T.S. Tirumurti, India’s permanent representative to the United Nations, said that India condemned “all acts of violence, especially rocket attacks from #Gaza.” On the face of it, the statement may have seemed like relatively banal comment coming after days of violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

But for close watchers of the India-Israel relationship, it was nothing short of intriguing, underscoring how the Indo-Israeli partnership has evolved since the Cold War’s end. Throughout the Cold War, India had almost unequivocally supported the Palestinian cause and had kept Israel at a studied distance. But in this statement, it went out of its way to single out the rocket attacks from the Palestinian side. In turn, it underscored the difficulty that Indian diplomacy is faced with in striking a balance.

In November 1947, India voted against the creation of the state of Israel at the United Nations General Assembly. The reasons were complex, stemming in part from the unease of India’s postcolonial, nationalist elite about the sagacity of carving out what they perceived to be settler state in the erstwhile British mandate in Palestine. They were also sensitive to the sentiments of India’s vast Muslim population, which had little sympathy for the creation of Jewish state in the Arab world. Finally, some Indian leaders also felt that they could not endorse a state that was founded on religious grounds, especially coming so soon after the violent creation of Pakistan, an outcome that they had staunchly opposed.

India did formally recognize Israel in 1950, but it still refused to enter into full diplomatic relations with the new state. Not only would such recognition play poorly in the country’s domestic politics, it believed, but it was also hesitant to run afoul of the vast Arab bloc in the Non-Aligned Movement, which India helped found. The relationship remained relatively distant in the following decades, despite many overtures from Israel, including military support for India during the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan.

It was only in the late 1970s that relations started to warm.

It was only in the late 1970s, during a short hiatus when the Indian National Congress, the long-dominant national political party, was voted out of power, that relations started to warm. In August 1977, Moshe Dayan, a former general who was Israel’s minister of foreign affairs, made a clandestine trip to India to meet with India’s Prime Minister Morarji Desai. In those meetings, little transpired, as the Desai government did not last. The Congress party finally returned to office in 1980 and resumed its position of shunning any public engagement of Israel.

Following the 1991 Madrid Conference—the attempt by the Soviet Union and the United States to restart the Israel-Palestine peace process—and the ensuing brief thaw between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), New Delhi took the opportunity in January 1992 to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel and opened an embassy in Tel Aviv.

Since then, the Indo-Israeli relationship has developed steadily, especially when it comes to contact between the leaders of both countries, weapons purchases, and counterterrorism cooperation. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, enjoy a close rapport. Modi even became the first sitting Indian prime minister to visit Israel in 2017, a gesture that Netanyahu reciprocated the next year. Those visits, complemented by Modi’s purchase of 250 SPICE 2000 bombs from Israel’s Rafael systems earlier in his tenure, stood in sharp contrast with the more discreet approach previous governments had adopted.

At the same time, though, India has never quite disavowed (or avowed) Palestine. During India’s struggle for independence from the British, Indian nationalists had supported Palestinian nationalists, a position that led a newly independent India to support at the U.N. the creation of an independent federal state of Palestine (with constitutional safeguards for the Jewish minority). However, following the creation of Israel in 1948 and the immediate Arab-Israeli conflict that followed, India was very circumspect in its diplomatic dealings with the various entities proclaiming themselves to be representative of the Palestinians. For example, India decided not to recognize the All-Palestine Government in 1948.

This changed in the 1970s as India developed strong ties with the PLO. It was the first non-Arab country to recognize the PLO’s authority as “the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” in 1974. In 1975, a PLO office was set up in New Delhi, and full diplomatic relations were established in March 1980. India was again the first non-Arab country to recognize the state of Palestine when it was proclaimed in November 1988.

More recently, in 2015 and in 2016, India abstained from supporting a Palestine-sponsored resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva to launch an International Criminal Court investigation into Israel for war crimes during the 2014 Gaza crisis. But India also did not abandon its support for the PLO, sustaining its diplomatic support for the two-state solution.

It is against this backdrop that the recent Indian statement about the violence in Israel and the West Bank needs to be unpacked. The extremely careful wording reflects a delicate balancing act. Given the growing strength of the Indo-Israeli bilateral relationship, not to mention Modi’s personal rapport with Netanyahu, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs felt compelled to single out the rocket attacks emanating from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Yet it chose not to let Israel entirely off the hook through its condemnation of “all acts of violence,” and it didn’t fully upbraid Hamas for its role in the bloodshed.

There is little question that segments of the Indian public that are engaged on the Israel-Palestine question remain quite sympathetic to the Palestinian cause even though there is no particular fondness for Hamas. At a time when the government in New Delhi has faced a barrage of legitimate criticism for its failures during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could ill afford to alienate important foreign-policy constituencies through an unequivocal denunciation of Hamas’s actions. And in a related vein, there’s still residual fellow feeling with the Palestinians among parts of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, which deals with the Middle East and the Levant.

No wonder then, that although the Modi government had been more public in its engagement with Israel than previous governments, it has also regularly reaffirmed its support for the Palestinian Authority. For instance, in 2017, Modi invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to New Delhi before traveling to Tel Aviv. Similarly, a few weeks prior to Netanyahu’s visit in 2018, India also supported the U.N. General Assembly vote against U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, arguing that the decision went against international law and previous U.N. Security Council resolutions. And in November 2020, India decided to quadruple its refugee assistance to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. These gestures remain broadly popular among the Indian public.

But there’s another factor at play: The Ministry of External Affairs no doubt also had one eye firmly locked on India’s relationships with the Arab world stretching from Israel’s immediate neighbors to the Persian Gulf. Vast numbers of Indian expatriates, for example, work in the Gulf states, and India remains heavily dependent on the region for access to hydrocarbons and investment. India has had to manage bolstering its ties with Israel without alienating much of the Arab world—a task that had been made easier in the wake of the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

In other words, the seemingly bland statement from Tirumurti hid incredibly complex calculations about cross-cutting domestic and international pressures. New Delhi no doubt felt compelled to come up with wording that would reassure its strategic partner, Israel, without needlessly provoking pro-Palestinian Indians or the sentiments of its friends in the Arab world. Time will tell whether India will be able to continue to get the balance right.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Nicolas Blarel is an associate professor of international relations at the Institute of Political Science at Leiden University. He is the author of The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy: Continuity, Change, and Compromise since 1922. Twitter: @nicoblar