Today, Israel is the second biggest foreign military supplier for India, poised to pip the US over the long term.
In 1893, Swami Vivekananda famously invoked India’s embracing “inclusivity” in his seminal address to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago by stating: “I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites who came to southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny.”
In 2013, 120 years later, then Israeli President Shimon Peres reciprocated the sentiment while also calling Mahatma Gandhi a “prophet” and stated: “I think India is the greatest show of how so many differences in language and sects can coexist facing great suffering and keeping full freedom...”.
India has a rare record with Judaism before Aaliyah (emigration of Jews to Israel) with its Malabar Jews dating back to the King Solomon era, Paradesi Jews (Spanish and Portuguese), the Bene Israel community who arrived 900 years back, Baghdadi Jews and more recent converts Bnei Menashe (Mizo and Kuki tribesman) and Bene Ephraim (“Telegu Jews”). As Rabbi Metzger presciently put it: “Jews have lived in India for over 2,000 years and have never been discriminated against. This is something unparalleled in human history”. This civilisational-historical fact overcame the official “distance” between the two nations till 1992.
The fructification of the religion-based Zionist movement led to the creation of the modern State of Israel in 1948. This genealogical fact militated against India’s own bloody Partition caused by a religion-based vivisection. Even Mahatma Gandhi had wholeheartedly empathised and sympathised with the Jews over their persecution but couldn’t agree with the forcible occupation of Palestine under the pretext of “sanction for it is sought in the Bible” — so the moral conundrum of forcing out the Arabs was unjustifiable for him, thus the initiation of the Indian position. The “hyphenation” of the “Israeli-Palestinian” context established itself in the immediate aftermath of all the subsequent Indo-Israeli moves. Though the contradictions emanating from the steadfast pro-Pakistan tilt of Arab nations (particularly on Kashmir) posited a genuine conundrum on India to continue favouring the cause of Palestine, at the cost of normalising the relationship with the reality of Israel. India recognised Israel (after opposing Israel’s UN membership in 1949) in 1950, after King Farouk of Egypt had voted in favour of Pakistan over the Hyderabad issue.
Despite the absence of full-fledged diplomatic relations, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is said to have reached out to the Israelis over the 1962 Sino-Indian war and got military wares. Despite the utopian notions of the nonaligned movement co-propounded by Nehru and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars further complicated the situation with the Arabs clearly tilting in favour of Pakistan, while Israel unequivocally supported India, both diplomatically and militarily (as per the P.N. Haksar papers). This despite India supporting Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal, denouncing Israel in the “Six Day War” and the continued support to the Palestinian cause. India, in the 1970s and 1980s, was repeatedly attacked by strictures from the Organisation of Islamic Conference and the period saw substantial moral, diplomatic and financial funding by Arabs towards Pakistan’s India-centric nuclear programme (despite that India was the first non-Arab nation to diplomatically accredit the PLO).
However, Israel’s own history of contradictory rapprochement with arch-rivals like Jordan and Egypt made India’s ostensibly anti-Israel behaviour contextually understandable. Israel was familiar with the spectre of the then Soviet Union and China voting against Israel in UN forums while simultaneously deepening bilateral relations and trade. The realpolitik of the evolving situation in the early 1990s warranted the normalising of India-Israel ties. With this backdrop, rumours of Indo-Israeli talks about doing an Osirak-style-military attack on Pakistan’s Kahuta nuclear facilities gained credibility.
The changing geopolitics in 1990s with the Cold War’s end, the emergence of Islamic terror in the Middle East and gradual warming of India-US ties led to the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, while still retaining the so-called moral position on Palestine. Since then, the balance on the Israel-Palestinian axis has been broadly maintained, with increasing symbolic gestures of tilting towards Tel Aviv. India’s abstention in the vote condemning Israel over the 2014 Gaza war, abstaining again on a Unesco resolution calling Israel “an occupation force in Jerusalem” and the recent Narendra Modi visit, which sought to “dehyphenate” the Israel-Palestinian context with the PM only visiting Israel, not the West Bank: all this is symptomatic of the emerging new order.
Today, Israel is the second biggest foreign military supplier for India, poised to pip the US over the long term. Its cutting-edge military technology is buttressed with crucial intelligence-sharing, strategic tieups beyond military wares into the field of agriculture, commerce and space technology. The burgeoning civilian transactions already make India the eighth largest trading partner for Israel, helping override occasional hiccups like the recent cancellation of a $500 million order for the Spike anti-tank guided missiles. It is this larger narrative, contextual understanding and the obvious portents of “natural allies” which will allow the growing India-Israel equation to overcome India’s recent vote in the UN Security Council against the recent American move to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
For India, supporting the Palestinians is a moral obligation and it needn’t be a deal-breaker in the Indo-Israeli equation. Israel will understand the sincerity and consistency of the Indian position on the “two-nation solution” on the future of Palestine even if it disagrees with the exact means, dimensions and contours of New Delhi’s stand. The future Indo-Israeli possibilities are immense — as even in the military domain the Israeli components are essentially of “systems”, as opposed to complete “military platforms” like tanks, warships or fighter planes, as yet. Israel has shown remarkable flexibility in adapting to topical necessities — such as the recent murmurs of an Israeli-Saudi understanding on Iran. Therefore, for it to sift through the evolving Indian position on Palestine, and yet solidify the Indo-Israeli framework with the impending visit of Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu to India, is entirely possible, justifiable and morally tenable.