- Mandeep Singh
ISRAEL’S QUEST FOR A STRATEGIC PARTNER IN INDIA
Israel is a small Jewish nation-state that is geographically situated in West Asia, but a lot of state’s energy and resources during its early years as an established fact of international life were channelized towards neutralizing and resisting the hostility of its neighbouring Arab states. The founding fathers of Israel did display a great alacrity to lift the curse of regional isolation from the destiny of the young Jewish state. However, Israel could not manage to achieve any major diplomatic breakthrough in Asia in its initial years because of the urgent need to gain political and military support by materialising some sort of partnership with a great power like France and later on the US.
Despite limited diplomatic success in Asia, Israel shares an interesting relation with India as it gives crucial insights into the evolution and workings of Israeli foreign policy. Even before the birth of India, the founding fathers of Israel and Zionism reverently looked up to the Indian National movement through the prism of “spiritual recognition of unity” that does not acknowledge the differences but also promote them, posing a strong alternative to the alleged sectarian and rapacious nationalism of Europe. The portraits of India’s first president Rajendra Prasad and first prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru in the study of their Israeli counterparts Dr Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion respectively are further a testament to the keenness that the Israeli leaders possessed to foster a fruitful partnership with India.
Paradoxically, the intellectual idealization of the Indian leaders, the legacy of a common colonial master, and finally, the almost simultaneous execution of traumatic historical partitions based on the ideas of population transfers and varying religions, did not bring the two nations any closer. In India’s worldview, Israel was ‘contaminated’ by colonialism. Alternatively, the Zionist Movement’s outright support of Britishers for Balfour Declaration in 1917 or Israel’s declaration of war in 1956 with the assistance of France against Egypt, a strong ally of India and member of the non-alliance movement; all these foreign policies of Israel violated the founding principles of India which were of anti-imperialism and Third World solidarity. Although India rewarded Israel with de facto recognition in 1950, yet it abstained to have normalization of diplomatic relations until 1992.
Many academicians believe and claim that it was the ‘Muslim Factor’ or a large amount of Muslim population in India that obstructed all the diplomatic efforts of Israel until the end of the cold war.
There is no critical ambiguity in asserting that the internal and external circumstances of a nation guide its interests. However, one must not undermine the pertinence of lack of ideological convergence that forced the founding leaders of India to maintain the status quo of non-relation with Israel for almost forty-five years in a decolonized world during the cold war, when the matters of political affinity for newly formed nations were also strict matters of self-identity of the nation. However, the end of the cold war monumentally changed the landscape of the international order. The end of the cold war created a space for issue-based understandings in the foreign policies of the nation-states that were driven more by national and economic interests than the ideological factor. Moreover, Israel’s agreement to participate in the Madrid Peace Conference of October 1991 emboldened India to have a legitimate pretext to normalize relations with Israel. It is significant to scrutinize how Israel utilized different ways since 1991 to attempt to find a strategic partner in a growing Asian power like India.
Since 1991, Israel has managed to successfully employ the federal structure of India to its advantage. Israel realizes that the normalization of relations does not imply that the ideological barriers completely cease to exist or increases the chances of an outright pro-Israel stance on international forums by India. However, the various state governments of India do not have the onus to handle the complex foreign policies of India with the same level of diplomatic pragmatism that the job of the central government demands.
Alternatively, many state governments have several bilateral ties with Israel, especially in the fields of agriculture and water management, that serve the dual objectives of the foreign policy of Israel. It helps to boost economic ties with India as well as cement its presence beyond the political lobby of the central government and urban elite in the wider socio-political landscape of India. Even during the era of non-relations, Israel had managed to cultivate political allies with several non-Congress leaders like George Fernandes, M.L. Sondhi, N.G. Ranga, and many others. Israel also made a substantial amount of investments in the communist-ruled West Bengal. In January 2002, Shimon Peres, the then Israeli Foreign minister, on his visit to New Delhi, said: “We regard India to be one of the most important countries in the world’s history at this time.” At present, Israel is indeed the second-largest supplier of military equipment to India after Russia along with sever multi-faceted economic interactions in the fields of agriculture, aerospace, health, science and technology. Counter-terrorism and intelligence are also another two important tenets that concretize the partnership between the two countries.
Implications of the end of the Cold War, Israel’s tactical use of India’s federal structure, mutual economic interests, and the blossoming of the defence sector, are some of the useful tools to encompass the trajectory of the evolution of Israel’s relations with India since 1948. Nonetheless, one may still ponder what makes the relationship between these two nation-states ‘strategic’ or more fundamentally, why Israel sees a ‘strategic’ partner in India if it does at all. In this context, the shared legacy of Partition may have initially soured the relations between the two countries due to ideological differences. However, one must not perceive the act of decolonization or a geopolitical demarcation as just traumatic acts of past that displaced and killed millions. The act of Partition is a dynamic act that continuously reframes the dynamics of Israel’s conflict with Palestine or India’s relations with its neighbour Pakistan and its internal ethnonational crises. No nation-states act out of void. It acts based on crucial past experiences and ideas that have formulated its self-identity. Alternatively, one may claim that the occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank in 1967 or the recent Trump’s Plan endorsed by the Israeli state are actions that prove that the Partition is an ongoing process. The ideas born from the Partition continue to change and redefine the internal politics of Israel in different and even contradictory ways. Likewise, India has also moved from its socialist values to a certain level of “saffronisation” of the nation with the change in the central government led by Narendra Modi. Many scholars even claim that the common policies of ethno-religion nationalism and neo-liberalism make Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu ideological brothers. Arjun Appadurai, a cultural critic, defines the current Israel-India relations as one of “open markets-closed cultures.”
The recent defence deal between Israel and India, amid a global pandemic, for around sixteen thousand Israeli Negev light machine guns, worth $116m, further indicates towards the growing strategic partnership between the nation-states based on the principles of ideological convergence and mutual interests. Israel has finally managed to fulfil the goal of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion by fostering a healthy relation with India, but ironically on entirely different grounds than the ones he envisioned.
 Arie M. Dubnov, Notes on the Zionist passage to India, or: The analogical imagination and its boundaries(Journal of Israeli History, 2016), p.178.
 KhinvrajJangid, “Modi’s Visit: How Israel Went From ‘Contaminated’ By Colonialism to India’s Strategic Ally,” Haaretz, June 04, 2017.
 P. R. Kumaraswamy, Israel–India relations: seeking balance and realism (Israeli Affairs, 2004), p.255.
 P. R. Kumaraswamy, Redefining ‘Strategic’ Cooperation (Strategic Analysis, 2017), p.360.
 KhinvrajJangid, “Growing ideological convergence, not just business, is driving India-Israel relations,” Hindustan Times, June 07, 2017.
 Arie M. Dubnov, Notes on the Zionist passage to India, or: The analogical imagination and its boundaries(Journal of Israeli History, 2016), p.2014.
 Azad Essa, “Arms over masks: India buys weapons from Israel as coronavirus cases spike,” Middle East Eye,March 24, 2020.