The ongoing conflict in the Israel-Palestine region has sparked innumerable tensions in India. It is not surprising that a large and diverse country like India would have a nuanced worldview with respect to a global conflict of this magnitude. While the motivations of Indians choosing either side are obviously influenced by social, religious, or political reasons, it is noteworthy to point out that the geopolitical history between India and Israel may convolute these considerations.
In this article, I hope to provide you with a recount of Indo-Israeli relations over the years, while exploring the dynamic interplay of internal politics with foreign affairs.
India gained independence from British colonial rule on August 15, 1947, while the state of Israel was founded on May 14, 1948. Both countries were created after a tough religious conflict. While India faced a partition based on religious lines, with a large proportion of Muslims forming their own country that was to be sovereign, Israel’s creation was fundamentally opposed by most, if not all, Arab countries.
It is significant to note that despite these tensions, both Israel and India’s populations contained a sizable chunk of Muslims. It is not surprising, therefore, that relations between the two countries remained timid at first. Understandably, during the first phase of Indian independence, its foreign policy in the Middle East region was largely focused on Arab countries.
In and around 1947, in the background of the Holocaust, the question of a state for the Jews, where they could be free of persecution seriously arose. The British, who had promised a Jewish homeland in exchange for support during the Second World War, handed the issue over to the United Nations (UN). The UN came up with the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, which divided Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories.
India, however, voted against this plan in the UN, and even against the admission of Israel into the United Nations in 1949. In fact, India was one of the few non-Arab countries that voted against the measure. An interesting anecdote from this time is that Albert Einstein wrote a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, to persuade him to support the creation of Israel. However, Nehru expressed his dilemma that he couldn’t do so, as India had to “unfortunately pursue policies that are essentially selfish.”
Naturally, this situation couldn’t remain free of internal politics in India. While the Congress policies were opposed to Israel, those of the Congress’ critics, such as the right-wing Sangh Parivar, vehemently supported the creation of Israel and the aspiration of the Jewish people for nationhood.
In “India’s Israel Policy”, a book by PR Kumaraswamy, it is said that Nehru admitted that India’s delay in recognising Israel had to do with the Arabs: in Nehru’s words, “We would have [recognised Israel] long ago because Israel is a fact. We refrained because of our desire not to offend the sentiments of our friends in the Arab countries.”
However, later in 1950, India officially recognised the state of Israel. This was after the Arab countries signed an armistice with Israel. An Israeli consulate was set up in what was then Bombay in 1953. In contrast, India was also the first non-Arab state to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), in 1974, as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Fastening Ties in Times of Need
India, facing a severe lack of allies in the 1962 Sino-Indian war, turned to Israel. PM Jawaharlal Nehru requested the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion for arms and ammunition. However, Nehru, in a somewhat disrespectful manner, proposed that these supplies be shaped without bearing the Israeli flag, so as to not offend India’s Arab partners. PM Ben-Gurion did not concede this request until it was agreed that arms and ammunition would be supplied with Israeli flags.
India again found itself backed into a corner in 1971, during the war with Pakistan. This time, Washington was firmly in Islamabad’s corner. Yet, when India asked Israel for assistance, it obliged again. Despite facing an arms shortage, Israel supplied arms to India as Israeli PM Golda Meir wanted to establish diplomatic ties in exchange for the arms.
However, despite the assistance, India under the leadership of Indira Gandhi remained a supporter of only the Palestinian cause. The government consistently backed the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, condemning Israeli occupation and advocating for a two-state solution.
It went as far as the leader of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, referring to Indira Gandhi as his “sister”. Arafat visited India numerous times during Gandhi’s tenure and set up an office for the PLO in Delhi. When Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, he attended her funeral.
In 1988, India became one of the first countries to recognise the Palestinian State after the PLO declared independence.
The first phase of Indian ties with Israel then clearly had a pro-Palestinian tilt. It was also characterised by the Congress rule. While its supporters argue that this was because India was against “colonial” states like Israel, its opponents argue that this was merely an attempt at appeasement of the domestic Muslim population and the Arab states, despite Israel’s unwavering support to India.
What Happened Next?
In and around 1988, the fall of the Soviet Union, which India had leaned towards, despite being non-aligned officially, was imminent. India thus could look to form ties with the Jewish state, which was in the U.S. faction during the Cold War.
Secondly, Palestine’s support to Iraq in its invasion of Kuwait rendered it isolated from the Arab world. Palestine had been expected to support Kuwait in this conflict, as it claimed to be at the receiving end of Israeli occupation. Kuwait had been one of the strongest supporters of the Palestinian cause, both politically and financially, and Arafat’s decision to back Iraq came as a jolt to everyone.
Spurred by these developments, India under PM PV Narasimha Rao looked to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Diplomatic relations between Israel and India got fully established in 1992. After the establishment of ties and opening of embassies, Israel became even more clear cut in its support for India, backing India’s stance on Kashmir in the UN.
Even so, ties between India and Israel only became strong under the BJP-led NDA governments.
Starting with the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government after 1998, ties with Israel became robust. After the Kargil War in 1999, India felt the need to modernize its military technology and sought to ask for Israel’s help, as it is well known for its modern military.
In 2000, India entered into its inaugural defence agreement with Israel concerning the Barak-1 surface-to-air missile system. Originally crafted for naval defence, the Barak missile system was designated for installation on Indian Navy vessels. This historic agreement encompassed more than the mere transaction of the missile system; it also facilitated technology transfer, enabling India to domestically manufacture these missiles.
Beyond defence, the collaborative efforts between India and Israel extended to various sectors, including agriculture, technology, and research and development.
In 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India.
India-Israel cooperation increased dramatically in 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the helm of the country in 2014. Yet, Indian-Palestinian ties have not backslid, and India’s ties with the Arab nations are better than ever. Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel on July 4, 2017, which was reciprocated when Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to Delhi in 2018.
Unquestionably, there exists a friendship between PM Netanyahu and PM Modi, and this has led to stronger ties of friendship between India and Israel. Again, illustrating India’s complicated stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, PM Modi also became the first Indian Prime Minister in 2018 to visit Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
India’s Positions on the Current Situation
India recognises both Israel and Palestine in the UN. It continues to advocate for a two-state solution and for Palestinian sovereignty. However, its warm relations with Israel mean that it is lenient in the international forum. India is prone to abstentions when it comes to matters of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most recently, India abstained from a Jordanian resolution in the UN General Assembly calling for an immediate humanitarian truce in Gaza after the October 7 Attacks on Israel.
India’s foreign policy has become more openly pro-Israel now, with the latest conflict, as is shown by PM Narendra Modi’s tweet regarding the attack: “The people of India stand firmly with Israel in this difficult hour. India strongly and unequivocally condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.”
At the same time, India continues to hold conversations with the global leaders on ending the humanitarian crisis in the region. India has condemned the civilian deaths and is also sending relief material to the Palestinians.
The future for India lies in a clever yet delicate balance of maintaining amicable ties with both the Arab countries and Israel.
Note: I have taken the photographs/illustrations from internet. They belong to the author/photographer/designer of the original article/s.