Will India Draw Closer to Israel?
New Delhi’s long-standing balancing act between Israel and the Palestinians faces its toughest test yet.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: India reacts to the Israel-Hamas war, devastating earthquakes strike Afghanistan, and a prominent Pakistani cricket broadcaster leaves India midway through the Cricket World Cup.
India Addresses Israel-Hamas War
Four days after horrific attacks by Hamas against Israel sparked a war in the region, India’s response has come in two tweets from Prime Minister Narendra Modi that condemned terrorism and expressed solidarity with Israel. New Delhi has friendly ties with both Israel and the Palestinian side, so it must be cautious in its public messaging. But its relationship with Israel has grown rapidly in recent years. The Israel-Hamas war, as suggested by Modi’s tweets, may draw the two countries even closer.
During its first few decades of independence, India enjoyed close relations with the Palestinians. Relations with Israel only began to strengthen after the Cold War. A pivotal moment came in 1999, when Israel sent weapons to India during the latter’s brief war with Pakistan. But ties have blossomed in the Modi era: In 2017, he became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. Since then, trade and arms sales have surged. Technological cooperation—especially in agriculture and surveillance—has expanded, too.
The similarly tough approaches that Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take toward counterterrorism, along with their reported good chemistry, have strengthened relations as well. That terrorism triggered the Israel-Hamas war could generate a strong sense of solidarity between Israel and India, which has also suffered terrorist attacks and confronted the persistent threat of terrorism for years.
Recent geopolitical developments in the Middle East have bolstered the partnership while putting some distance between India and the Palestinians. New Delhi embraced the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized Israel’s relations with some of its Arab neighbors and enabled the emergence of new initiatives—such as the I2U2 quad and a new transport corridor—that include India. Multilateral cooperation in the Middle East is important for New Delhi, given its trade interests there and the large Indian diaspora in the Arab Gulf.
India’s relations in the Middle East also align more closely with Israel’s interests than the Palestinians’. Some of India’s top partners in the region—such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—have formal relations with Israel, while another—Saudi Arabia—was reportedly closing in on a normalization deal before the Israel-Hamas war began. Iran, a Hamas ally, is one of the few Middle Eastern states that has bumps in its relations with India, mainly because New Delhi has reduced its commercial ties with Tehran in deference to U.S. sanctions.
Despite all this, India can’t afford to give the impression that it’s fully taking Israel’s side. It still supports the two-state solution and in the last few years has voted against Israel in several United Nations resolutions and authorized humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees. India won’t want to antagonize key partners in the Middle East that are appalled by the brutality of Israel’s retaliation in Gaza after the Hamas attacks.
India will likely keep a low public profile during the war, privately signaling its support to Israel while communicating to Palestinian interlocutors that its expressions of solidarity with Israel are a reaction to Hamas terrorism and not a rejection of the Palestinian cause. Given the reported unhappiness among India’s Arab partners about New Delhi’s refusal to mention Israel’s retaliatory operations in Gaza, an Indian statement calling for de-escalation and dialogue can’t be ruled out.
Still, expanding India-Israel cooperation and a new war that amplifies shared concerns suggest that India’s long-standing policy of balancing its relations with Israel and the Palestinians could soon face a test.
What We’re Following
South Asia reacts to Israel-Hamas war. South Asian countries have responded to the crisis in Israel and the Palestinian territories just as one might expect. The states that do not recognize Israel—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Pakistan—have said less about Hamas’s terrorism, instead highlighting Israel’s brutalities in Gaza, and reiterated calls for a Palestinian state. Two countries that have formal relations with Israel, Nepal and Sri Lanka, have focused their public messaging more on the Hamas attacks.
Nepal’s reaction was similar to India’s, expressing solidarity with Israel. However, the country was directly affected: Ten Nepali students were killed in the Hamas attacks in Israel, with several others still missing. Sri Lanka’s reaction was more balanced than others in the region, expressing concern about deaths in both Israel and Gaza. Bhutan, which also has formal relations with Israel, doesn’t appear to have issued a public reaction to the war.
The Israel-Hamas war could have several direct impacts on South Asian states’ interests. India and Nepal each have a sizable contingent of citizens in Israel. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan have large numbers of workers in the Gulf states, and a wider regional war could impact their security. Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan also depend on the region for oil and gas supplies. There are also some potential internal security threats: Hard-line Islamist parties in Bangladesh and Pakistan that are hostile to Israel may stage protests that could turn violent.
Devastating earthquakes slam Afghanistan. Last Saturday, two 6.3-magnitude earthquakes hit Herat province in Afghanistan, with a third strong earthquake striking the region on Wednesday. As of Tuesday, Taliban officials estimated that nearly 2,500 people had died, but the death toll is expected to rise. A U.N. statement on Sunday said that across 11 villages in the province, every home was destroyed.
Afghans are no strangers to the terrible impacts of natural disasters, but their plight has grown more precarious since the Taliban takeover because many international donors—including the United Nations—have reduced aid. Afghans have also been cursed with remarkably bad timing: Saturday’s earthquakes happened on the same day that Hamas attacked Israel, capturing global attention and likely the lion’s share of funding.
As a result, rescue efforts this week were in many cases led by earthquake survivors themselves, digging through rubble with their bare hands to try to find missing family members. The remote location of the earthquakes has further hampered rescue missions.
Flood kills dozens in India. More than 140 people remain missing one week after a massive flash flood caused by a glacial lake overflowing its banks in the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim. More than 80 people are currently confirmed dead. The scale of the tragedy is immense: Local officials said 49 of the victims were swept so far downstream that they were found in West Bengal state; others were found in northern Bangladesh.
The deadly flooding has sparked debate in India about the need for early warning systems. India’s National Disaster Management Authority acknowledged that it had surveyed the lake, which has long been deemed at risk for flooding, about a month ago to plan for the possible installation of such systems.
Under the Radar
The India-Pakistan cricket honeymoon appears to be over, if it had ever started. In late September, Pakistan’s national cricket team arrived in India for the first time in seven years—for this year’s Cricket World Cup—and received a warm welcome from Indian fans. But the cricket camaraderie didn’t last long. On Monday, Zainab Abbas, a prominent Pakistani cricket broadcaster, abruptly left India in the middle of the tournament.
Abbas’s departure came soon after an Indian lawyer filed a complaint against her for allegedly posting derogatory tweets against India and Hinduism—back in 2014. Abbas hasn’t publicly responded to the allegation; the International Cricket Council said she left India due to personal reasons. Last week, Abbas posted a message on X, formerly known as Twitter, lauding India-Pakistan cricket cooperation.
In fact, Abbas was one of the few Pakistanis lucky enough to make it to India. Another trigger for tensions is that dozens of Pakistanis, including around 60 accredited sports journalists, have not received visas to enter India. They have already missed Pakistan’s first two matches, both victories. (The Pakistani team itself managed to gets visas only hours before traveling to India.)
This week, Pakistani cricket officials called on their government to intervene to try to expedite the visas. But time is running out for journalists and fans to get clearance to travel, with Pakistan’s much-anticipated matchup with India scheduled for Saturday.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- What You Need to Know About the Israel-Hamas War by Daniel Byman and Alexander Palmer
- Israel Could Win This Gaza Battle and Lose the War by Stephen M. Walt
- The Hamas Attack Has Changed Everything by Steven A. Cook
In the Daily Mirror, journalist P.K. Balachandran warns of worsening ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province. “This conflict appears to be insolvable in the absence of an overarching political and moral leadership that can bridge the two,” he writes.
In the Print, former military advisor Lt. Gen. Prakash Menon laments Modi’s inability to ease unrest in the state of Manipur. It “seems that he expects the suffering of Manipuris to be drowned out by the cacophony of state and national elections. If this is the case, it could be a … highly lamentable act of shortsightedness in the practice of statecraft,” he writes.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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