Nicolas Blarel on India’s Growing Proximity With Israel

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Nicolas Blarel on India’s Growing Proximity With Israel

Israel has been willing to supply India with high-tech weapons “without expecting an explicit change in India’s voting patterns at the U.N. or a dilution of its pro-Palestine positioning.”

Nicolas Blarel on India’s Growing Proximity With Israel

Student activists put up a banner in solidarity with Israel at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Bikas Das

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s expression of strong solidarity with Israel within hours of Hamas’ attack on October 7 has drawn attention to the growing relationship between India and Israel. A strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, India did not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992. In the decades since India-Israel cooperation has grown. New Delhi sees Israel not only as a source of high-tech weapon systems but also as a reliable supplier, one that has stood by India during difficult times.

Relations have deepened especially since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Hindu nationalists have long admired Israel and been strong votaries of robust cooperation with the Jewish state.

Tracing the evolution of India’s relationship with Israel, Nicolas Blarel, who is an associate professor of International Relations at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and author of “The Evolution of India’s Israel Policy: Continuity, Change, and Compromise since 1922” (Oxford University Press, 2015) points out that Hindu nationalists admire “how Israel was able to build a homeland for Jewish people and unify a religious community that was spread out across different continents.” He told The Diplomat’s South Asia Editor Sudha Ramachandran that the BJP “has also seen Israel as a convenient and useful partner in countering terrorism.”

Following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted in support of Israel, which was interpreted as a shift in India’s traditional position in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Could you trace the important milestones in India’s growing support for Israel over the past decade?

India’s initial reaction to the October 7 Hamas attack has indeed been perceived as an important change with regard to India’s historical pro-Palestine stance, but that position had already been subtly evolving since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.

In fact, over the last nine years, India has moved from systematically voting in support of Palestine in multilateral settings like the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to hedging between supporting Palestine, abstaining on some votes condemning Israel explicitly and not the actions of terrorist groups like Hamas, and to sometimes voting, albeit rarely, in support of Israel when the votes were specifically about condemning terrorist outfits. For instance, in July 2015, India abstained from voting on a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that welcomed an investigative report sanctioned by the council a year earlier to look into allegations of human rights violations during the Israel-Hamas war of 2014. Similarly, in November 2022, India abstained from voting on a UNGA resolution that sought an advisory opinion on Israel’s “prolonged occupation” of Palestine from the International Court of Justice.

And in a clearer departure from India’s traditional stance, in June 2019, India voted in favor of the decision proposed by Israel to deny observer status to the Palestinian NGO Shahed (“Witness”), a consultative status at the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council. As a result, rather than a clear re-alignment with Israel, India under Modi had begun to adapt its position on the merits of particular cases, and what it perceives to be in its national interest.

This subtle shift can be explained by the Modi government’s more public engagement with Israel. Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit Tel Aviv, in July 2017. Netanyahu visited Delhi soon after, in January 2018.

Nevertheless, the two initial tweets from Prime Minister Modi condemning the terrorist attack and fully supporting Israel and its right to defend itself, did come as a surprise given India’s more balanced reaction to previous Israel-Hamas crises, even under Modi’s tenure.

For instance, less than two years ago, India’s delicate balancing act had led to a carefully worded response from the Indian ambassador to the U.N. singling out attacks emanating from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, but also choosing not to let Israel entirely off the hook through its condemnation of “all acts of violence.”

That being said, over the last weeks, India’s public positioning has gradually reverted back to its traditional hedging behavior, by reminding both internal and external audiences of its support to the two-state solution to the crisis, and by urging a restrained response to the October 7 attacks and strongly condemning the civilian casualties in the ongoing violence in Gaza.

What draws the BJP and its fraternal organizations to Israel?

The BJP, notably its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), and fraternal organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have always supported a rapprochement with Israel. For most of the Cold War, India had recognized Israel but had refrained from establishing diplomatic relations (from 1950 to 1992). This no-relationship policy has coincided mainly with a period of Indian National Congress (INC) rule. As a result, the BJS/BJP in opposition has long pushed for normalization of ties with Tel Aviv.

Various factors explain this long-term interest in developing closer ties with Israel. Historically, there has been an ideological interest in the Jewish national movement, notably on how a cultural-religious movement builds a modern and territorial nation-state project. Members of the RSS and BJP have admired how Israel was able to build a homeland for Jewish people and unify a religious community that was spread out across different continents. They have also focused on how this unification process happened under specific cultural symbols like the revival of the Hebrew language, which was long considered dead.

The RSS has also argued how Hindus had similarly suffered for centuries and never found unity. As a result, some of the ideological forefathers of the Hindu nationalist movement like Savarkar celebrated the establishment of a Jewish state, and saw in this new political reality a model to emulate on the subcontinent.

However, there have also been more strategic considerations. The BJP has seen Israel as a convenient and useful partner in countering terrorism, and in helping India improve its external and internal defense capacities. Whether it has been during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure as prime minister from 1998 to 2004, or today, the BJP has pushed for the purchase of surveillance equipment to better protect India’s borders (cross-border sensors, surveillance drones) but also of weapons that could help India eventually target terrorist threats beyond its borders. For instance, India purchased SPICE 200 precision-guided bombs, and used them in 2019 to strike a terrorist camp deep inside Pakistani territory following the terrorist attack in Pulwama.

The BJP under Modi has also mentioned its admiration for the way Israel has been able to launch such cross-border operations to protect its territory and population. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has, for instance, asserted that India had joined the likes of Israel in hitting back at those meddling with India’s borders following the surgical strikes carried out in the wake of the terrorist attack in Pulwama. The belief shared among the BJP and its supporters that India and Israel share some similar terrorist threats, justifying thereby further defense cooperation, can also explain the initial reaction Modi government of solidarity with the Israeli government in the context of the October 7 terrorist attacks.

India’s Hindu nationalists were great admirers of Hitler and his persecution of Jews. When did their position on Jews and Israel change and why?

This is indeed an important paradox which has surprised many observers. However, this has to be viewed in the context of the rise of the Hindutva movement and ideology in the 1930s. Interestingly, while Hindu nationalists have had a historical affinity for the Jewish state as mentioned above, personalities like Golwalkar and Savarkar also had a deep admiration for Germany’s Nazi movement or Italy’s fascist regime. Hindutva’s early proponents even glorified Adolf Hitler and his championing of the superiority of the Aryan race.

One particular aspect they highlighted was how Nazi Germany had been able to “purge” the German nation of a foreign race. Hindutva ideologues stressed that Hindustan (India) had to learn from Nazi Germany and hinted that in a Hindu Rashtra, foreign races, i.e. Muslims, should adopt Hindu culture. It is through this mirroring perspective that Hindu nationalists in the 1930s supported Hitler’s “purification” policies.

However, by 1941, Savarkar began to openly support Zionism and backed the Zionist claim of resettlement in Palestine, thereby opposing the Congress’ support of the creation of a federal state in Palestine. In 1947, he celebrated the future establishment of an independent Jewish State by famously declaring that “If the Zionists’ dreams were realized, if Palestine became a Jewish state, it would gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends.” He also famously stated that “the Jewish people bear no political ill-will towards Hindudom” and referred to the lack of communal tensions with the small Jewish minorities that had historically settled in India.

It remains unclear whether Savarkar withdrew in the 1940s his support for Nazi Germany, or at the least was more cautious in his public support. It could be that the Holocaust had become common knowledge or, more likely, it was the strategic embrace of the Zionist nation-state project which had become a reality by 1948 and which could also be instrumentalized to support the cause for a Hindu Rashtra in the Subcontinent.

German Culture Minister Claudia Roth, right, looks on as Rabbi Israel Kozlovsky, Director of Chabad House, briefs her during the inauguration of the Jewish Route and commemoration the victims of 2008 terror attack at Nariman lighthouse memorial in Mumbai, India, Aug. 23, 2023. AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

Is the BJP government’s solidarity with Israel ideological or strategic?

As I noted above, there is some ideological convergence, as both Zionism and Hindutva support a blending of national and religious identities. There have also been calls, which we can see in some social media accounts in India which have been commenting on the October 7 attacks, for further cooperation against Islamic terrorism. However, beyond the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, when the Lashkar-e-Taiba directly targeted both Hindu and Jewish populations, it is not clear how shared and analogous these perceived threats are.

Rather, the BJP government’s solidarity is more strategic in nature. The BJP believes, like the INC to some degree, that Israel has been a reliable military partner since the Kargil war, when Israel was willing to continue exporting defense equipment, especially ammunition and spare parts, while most of the international community had embargoed India and Pakistan.

Since then, the BJP has supported strengthening defense ties, including the purchase of high-tech defense items like missile defense systems, Early Airborne Warning systems for AWACS, and weaponized drones among others, which India has not been able to get from the U.S., Western European states, even its traditional Russian supplier. This bilateral defense trade has been very beneficial for India, but also for Israel. Depending on various estimates, Israel placed itself as India’s third-highest to fifth-highest military supplier (notably in the late to mid-2000s), and India is Israel’s largest export market for defense products by far.

What has India gained from its cooperation with Israel? 

Until recently, as mentioned above, the most important gains for India have been at the defense and strategic levels. Israel holds a specific place in India’s defense procurement and manufacturing strategy for several reasons. First, as cited, Israel has been considered a reliable military supplier for the past two decades. Second, the provision of high-technology defense items and systems has been key for India to modernize its aging Russian equipment. Third, Israel has been able to supply India with technology and upgrades compatible with Soviet/Russian and also French and American equipment which India has in stock.

In addition, several Indian states have benefited from technical cooperation with Israel in the fields of agriculture and water management. Recently, India has also begun to invest in Israel’s infrastructural capacities, notably and most visibly through the purchase of the Haifa Port by a consortium led by India’s Adani Group.

All of this cooperation was facilitated, however, by two factors. First, Israel has been willing to partner with India in these various areas without expecting an explicit change in India’s voting patterns at the United Nations or a dilution of India’s pro-Palestine positioning. Furthermore, over the last five years, the Abraham Accords also facilitated the normalization of Israel’s ties with important Arab states in the Middle East with whom India also has strong commercial and strategic ties like the UAE.  India has also welcomed these accords, which facilitated its own engagement of all stakeholders in this region.

As a result, the perceived pro-Israel tilt mentioned above could also come at a political price, if countries like the UAE have to revise their dealings with Israel as the conflict further escalates.

How is India’s strong support to Israel likely to impact its relations with Gulf countries?

This is an issue that India will need to carefully monitor and handle. Over the last decade, India has been a pivotal actor in the region by cultivating positive ties with most key actors in the Middle East. In the past, India had struggled to carefully navigate the various fault-lines in the region, which could for instance explain why it did not publicly embrace Israel for so long.

However, since the Abraham Accords, which India welcomed enthusiastically, India was able to discuss various economic and connectivity projects with Israel, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, under U.S. benediction and support, and this without any concerns of diplomatic or economic repercussions.

However, the Israeli operations in Gaza have either led to criticisms of Israel or calculated silence from some GCC states, especially the UAE. Given the important commercial and energy stakes for India, it is not unlikely that the Modi government will partly align its statements towards the Israel-Hamas war with key GCC partners like the UAE. This is why for instance Modi spoke with the UAE President Mohammed Bin Zayed and both called for an early resolution of the security and humanitarian situation.