Opportunities and Challenges for the Israel-India Relationship

March 14, 2018 by Oved Lobel
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The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council(AIJAC) has hosted Sadanand Dhume, a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and occasional Wall Street Journal columnist on South Asia, for a  briefing in Sydney on opportunities and challenges in the burgeoning India-Israel relationship.

Dr Tzvi Fleisher, Sadanand Dhume and Jamie Hyams

While rarely discussed in comparison to developments in the Middle East, the transformation of India’s attitude towards Israel is no less important.

Under the leadership of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian People’s Party (BJP), India has gone from a long-standing policy of rejectionism to a close partnership with Israel. During his 3-day visit to Israel in July 2017, the first of any Indian Prime Minister, Modi ensured he received saturation coverage. Dhume says that of all the photo-ops with Modi and Netanyahu, the one that struck him post was the joint visit to the grave of Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism. This, he says, perfectly embodied Modi’s very public and confident break with 100 years–– Jawaharlal Nehru, who later became India’s first Prime Minister upon independence, opposed the Balfour Declaration in 1917–– of Indian anti- Zionism.

The contrast between the current ties, which center around agricultural technology, counterterrorism, and defense cooperation––India is Israel’s largest arms buyer–– and the previous relationship is stark. Dhume recounted not being allowed to travel to two countries on his old Indian passport, Apartheid South Africa and Israel, and how India used to celebrate Yasser Arafat’s visits. During the Cold War, India viewed itself as a leader of the “Non-Aligned Movement,” which was virulently opposed to Zionism and Israel. Despite recognizing Israel in 1950, India did not establish full diplomatic relations with it until 1992. Even then, the relationship remained in the shadows, and with the exception of Ariel Sharon’s visit to India in 2003, no comparable high-level contacts occurred.

Aside from the conventional explanation of geopolitical realignment following the Soviet collapse, Dhume believes that a significant factor in shifting Indian attitudes is the majority view of its Muslim minority. Following the partition and the creation of Muslim-majority Pakistan, India retained a significant Muslim minority, which affected Indian policies and attitudes towards Israel. However, according to Dhume, resentment among the Indian majority began building towards the outsized minority impact on the nation’s Foreign Policy.

As positive as the trends are relative to the previous state of affairs, the relationship is by no means perfect. Dhume explained that public opinion and military and intelligence attitudes are still ahead of India’s political establishment, which continues to vote against Israel at the United Nations. Although India supported resolution 2334 on Jerusalem, Dhume says their view has evolved from pushing a particular outcome to supporting a negotiated solution between the parties. He himself advocates supporting Israel’s position rather than Indian neutrality. In addition, Dhume explained that many Indians may support Israel for the wrong reasons, believing anti-Israel accusations of animus towards Muslims and nationalist impunity but viewing these attributes positively.

Dhume expressed an additional concern with the nature of the Netanyahu-Modi relationship. Rather than trying to cultivate institutional Israeli ties with India, Netanyahu has arguably opted thus far for a relationship with the BJP and Modi himself, failing even to meet with the opposition on his India visit. It’s important, Dhume argued, that the relationship remain a bipartisan consensus in India and not become too closely identified with those currently in power, especially considering the intellectual weakness of the Hindu right.

During the Q&A, Dhume touched on other issues relating to India’s relationship with Israel, such as the lack of anti-semitism in India, the country’s relationship with Iran, and negative views of Israel on Indian campuses. Despite Jews making important contributions historically to India, very little remains of the community in India today, something Dhume views as a weakness in the relationship. Regarding the anti-Israel views of both Gandhi and Nehru, he argues that they weren’t grounded in anti-semitic tropes, but in the broader association of Israel with the West, Colonialism, and the United States.

He asserted that India’s ties with Iran are based on a lack of public awareness of Shiite terrorist groups and general ignorance of Iranian support for Sunni jihadists, along with the necessity of Iran as a means for India to maintain a route into Afghanistan. While balancing its relationships with Iran and the Gulf, Dhume says Israel is India’s most important relationship in the region.

Beyond Israel, Dhume also briefly discussed both the Australia-India and China-India relationships, as well as the worrying political trends in Indonesia. He argues that India and Australia, while sharing an overall positive relationship, are not consistently close. In the first place, they view the world through different lenses, with Australia maintaining traditional alliance relationships and India being suspicious of any official alliances. Furthermore, because India measures itself as a great power against China, it looks somewhat askance at smaller powers like Australia. He also mentioned the dismal commercial experience of Australian corporations in India due to the pervasive State presence in the economy. General Indian misgivings about Australia’s position in a potential conflict with China may also play a role, despite their shared concerns over Chinese power.

India, Dhume argues, is very concerned about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), not only because of increased Chinese economic influence, but also because of the dual use nature of much of the infrastructure, including air and sea ports, being developed around India. China’s close partnership with Pakistan and the importance of the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, is also of great concern. China is competing for influence in India’s backyard in a very hostile manner and obstructing them via the United Nations, and India is alarmed at exponentially growing Chinese military and economic power and refusal to relate to them as a peer or near-peer competitor.

Finally, on Indonesia, Dhume was not optimistic about ever-expanding Islamist influence there, citing the recent arrest of Jakarta’s governor for blasphemy, among other incidents and laws. While he doesn’t predict an Iran-style revolution, the Islamists are gaining greater social power throughout the country.

Oved Lobel is a policy analyst for The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council

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