“Each country thinks of its own interests first,” an apologetic Jawaharlal Nehru wrote Albert Einstein in autumn 1947, as he politely rejected the renowned physicist’s plea that India vote at the United Nations for the Partition Resolution.
Driven largely by concern for India’s ties in the Arab world and by fear of Muslim opposition within the Subcontinent, Nehru did not budge even after a last-minute personal appeal from Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist movement’s elder statesman. India voted against Israel’s establishment.
India did eventually recognise Israel in September 1950, but even then it refused to exchange ambassadors with the Jewish state, allowing Israel only to open a consulate in what was then called Bombay. This chilly attitude became even frostier as India invariably followed the Arab line on Israel in international forums, after Nehru joined Egypt’s Nasser and Yugoslavia’s Tito in establishing the anti-Israeli Non-aligned Movement.
Such was the low point from which Indian-Israeli relations began. But today, as reflected by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s high-profile visit to India in January, and by PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel last July, the Asian giant that once treated Israel as a diplomatic pariah has made a strategic U-turn.
Netanyahu’s six-day visit was a diplomatic tour de force – highlighted by a photogenic visit to the Taj Mahal, pilgrimage to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial site, and an emotional return to the site of a 2008 terror attack on a Jewish community centre in Mumbai. At the last, Netanyahu was accompanied by Israeli boy Moishe Holzberg, who lost both his parents in the attack when he was two years of age.
Joined by more than 100 Israeli business leaders, the largest such delegation that any Israeli leader has ever taken anywhere, Netanyahu met with President Ram Nath Kovin; opened the Raisina Conference, India’s flagship international symposium on geopolitical affairs; and signed multiple agreements for mutual investments, joint academic research, cooperation in oil prospecting, collaboration in cyber development, and co-productions between Israel’s film industry and Bollywood.
What began 25 years ago with the long-overdue establishment of full diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and New Delhi, has since evolved into a hectic trade relationship underpinned by intense cultural interaction.
The cultural element was sparked largely by thousands of Israeli backpackers who have been flocking to India annually since the end of last century, in what has become a sort of rite of passage for young adults after their military service.
Tens of thousands of Israelis have in this way obtained valuable familiarity with India, as well as a fondness for the country’s freedom, tolerance, and tastes. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Indians they encountered got a chance to compare the actual Israeli with distorted depictions to which they had been previously exposed.
The curiosity has been mutual. Some 40,000 Indians now visit Israel annually, and Israel expects to see this figure double in upcoming years. Israel also expects to host study tours for an aggregate 1,000 young leaders from Indian industry, academia, media and the arts.
Meanwhile, Indian-Israeli trade is believed to have exceeded US$2 billion last year, after having totalled US$1.95 billion in 2016.
India is a key source of Israeli textiles, chemicals, plastics, and raw diamonds. At the same time, Israeli experts are staffing 18 agricultural training centres across India, where an annual 20,000 Indian farmers learn Israeli methods of crop planning, water management and livestock husbandry.
Israeli firms are helping develop desalination projects and water purification systems across India, and agreements signed by Netanyahu and Modi indicate that Israel will be involved in the monumental project to clean up the Ganges River.
The Asian giant, whose trade with Israel was negligible a generation ago, now hosts an Israeli embassy, two consulates and three trade offices.
This extensive diplomatic investment is being made at a time when Israel has been shutting down embassies and consulates from San Salvador and Philadelphia to Minsk and Marseilles as a cost-cutting measure. Lurking behind this redeployment is an Israeli assessment that India – already the world’s third largest economy, and now growing faster than China – is poised to become a major global power, whose sway will outsize any single European country.
Aware of this reality, India’s geopolitical self-esteem is now such that leaders like Modi seek intense ties with Israel as part of a broader quest for global self-assertion.
As they see things, in heeding Arab demands that they shun the Jewish state, previous Indian leaders degraded India’s international stature, and thus undermined its national interests.
Moreover, with India challenged by Islamist terror and beset by a territorial dispute with Muslim Pakistan, many in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party say an Indian-Israeli alliance should be natural, for what they portray as the only two democracies between Bangladesh and Marrakech.
This is the backdrop against which President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel in 2015, returning President Ezer Weizmann’s visit 22 years earlier, 45 years after Nehru rejected Weizmann’s uncle’s appeal that India back Israel’s establishment.
This is the background to the cosiness displayed by Modi and Netanyahu when they flew kites together outside the Sabarmati Ashram, and when they ambled barefoot into the Mediterranean’s waves outside Caesarea while deep in conversation, after having tested a portable desalination device.
Modi’s and Netanyahu’s reciprocal visits, which followed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit in 2003, were all parts of a diplomatic revolution whereby India now sees in the Jewish state a tool of its domestic development and geopolitical resurgence.
The new understanding of Israel as a strategic asset has produced an elaborate arms trade that dwarfs the two countries’ civilian trade, so much so that, a mere quarter-century after the first Indian ambassador arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel is now India’s second-largest arms supplier after Russia.
Seen by the US as a geopolitical counterweight to China and Russia, India – the world’s leading arms importer – can buy from Israel pretty much any military hardware without fearing the kind of resistance Washington staged when Israel tried to sell China the strategic spy plane PHALCON. Israel has already sold such aircraft to India – as well as artillery barrels, radar systems, missiles, warships and drones.
This is not to say that Indian-Israeli ties are a panacea. In a sobering reminder of the relationship’s diplomatic limits, New Delhi politely turned down Jerusalem’s requests that it join US allies like Australia, Canada and Poland, and abstain in the UN vote which declared “null and void” Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
And in a reminder of the relationship’s economic challenges, a US$600 million deal for the sale of Israeli-made anti-tank Spike missiles was cancelled last year, due to a struggle between the Indian army, which wanted the deal, and leaders of the Indian arms industry, who wanted to make the missiles themselves.
The cancellation has been partly reversed during Netanyahu’s visit, but the saga underscores the unavoidable reality about selling anything to India – given its abundance of cheap labour, skilled engineers and able entrepreneurs, anything imported into India will sooner or later be made in India.
Economically, Israel can be expected to seek niches that India’s rapidly changing economy will create. Diplomatically, Israel hopes to see India ultimately impacting the Middle East on two planes: Iran, and the Arab world.
India is the second-largest buyer of Iranian oil after China. India therefore has leverage over Iran, whose 1979 revolution largely sparked the global Islamist terror that Indian leaders view as a major scourge.
Indian suspicion of Iran, fuelled also by Teheran’s support for Pakistan in its conflict with India, has made New Delhi consistently oppose the Ayatollahs’ nuclear program.
Israel therefore finds common cause with India on the Iranian front, where the Jewish state currently finds its most ominous strategic menace. When the Ali Khamenei era ends, India may prove effective in helping Iran reshape itself.
Such a role can also evolve in the Arab world. India can help create ties between Israel and the Gulf states, for which India is also a major supplier of petrodollars.
Casting its shadow across the Indian Ocean, New Delhi will be in a position to encourage Arab governments to change course on Israel. India, New Delhi can say to them, tried both shunning Israel and harmonising with it, and has learned that the latter is better than the former, precisely because Nehru was right when he told Einstein that “each country thinks of its own interests first.”