Israel and India: Strategic Bedfellows

By Prof Martin Sherman,

A curious Indian stops a passing Israeli backpacker on a New Delhi street. “Tell me,” he asks, “how many Israelis are there?”

“I’m not quite sure,” the backpacker answers. “About six million.”

“No, no,” retorts the Indian, “not just in New Delhi. I mean all together.”

Behind the joke is a remarkable reality: Some 40,000–50,000 Israelis travel to India each year (many of them “unwinding” in the country after completing military service), and are a very visible presence in the country. In some outlying locations Israelis comprise a dominant percentage of foreign visitors. Even in central sites such as the main market in Old Delhi it is not uncommon to see Hebrew signs and meet merchants who can converse with Israeli customers in fairly fluent Hebrew.

That Israelis feel an instinctive affinity for India should perhaps not be surprising. Its history is virtually devoid of antisemitism. Indeed, the only significant incidents were the Moors’ attack on the Jews in 1524 and the Portuguese persecution of Jews in Cranganore (now the Kerala coast) some years later. Moreover, many Indian Jews achieved great prominence, among them the Sassoons (for whom the Sassoon docks, the Sassoon hospital, and other well-known sites have been named), Dr. E. Moses (a Jewish mayor of Bombay), Lt. Gen. J. F. R. Jacobs (a general in the Indian Army who supervised the Pakistani Army’s 1971 surrender in Bangladesh and later served as governor of Goa and Punjab), Nissim Ezekiel (a poet/leading Indian literary personality), and Dr. Abraham Solomon Erulkar (the personal physician/friend of Mahatma Gandhi).

While at first glance the titan subcontinent of India and the tiny micro-state of Israel might appear to have little in common, a closer look reveals significant similarities:

* Both Indians and Jews have ancient, illustrious civilizations which deeply impact their respective national mindsets, and a reverence for their past heritage which is evident in many aspects of public and private daily life.
* Both nations achieved independence from British colonial rule in the late 1940s.
* Both have contended with threats to national security from neighboring countries (India from China and Pakistan; Israel from the Arab states), terrorism, political assassination (Itzhak Rabin in Israel; Indira and Rajiv Gandhi in India), periods of economic hardship, and ethno-religious rivalries (both having significant Muslim minorities which at times have displayed animosity to the non-Muslim majority).
* Both nations—despite these dangers—have never wavered in their commitment to democracy.
* Both are committed to a knowledge-based society emphasizing learning, science, and technological advancement.
* Both have received financial and political support from their highly successful diaspora communities (particularly in the U.S.), which are loyal to their host countries while maintaining a strong affinity with the homeland.

In addition, both Israel and India comprise the extremities of what Paul Sheehan, columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, has called “an ‘Arc of Instability’…stretching unbroken through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.” Washington Post writer Jim Hoagland has similarly described “Jerusalem and New Delhi [as] end points…in a vast swath of countries from North Africa through the Himalayas that should now be seen as a single strategic region [in which] India and Israel are the most vibrant democracies….” In theory, at least, a strong Indo-Israeli alliance would have the potential to create a formidable force for stability in a region threatened by radical fundamentalism and tyrannical theocracy.

Yet until the last decade of the 20th century, the state of Indo-Israeli relations has more often reflected their differences than their commonalities.

Economically, the two nations diverged over time. Although in their early years both India and Israel opted for heavily state-controlled economies, by the 1970s Israel began to adopt a free trade and private enterprise orientation; India, in contrast, emphasized centralized control and avoided dependence on foreign imports until the 1990s.

On the political and diplomatic fronts, the two nations were estranged for four decades, Israel aligning itself with the United States and India with the Soviet Union. Although India recognized the State of Israel in 1950, the then-ruling Congress Party eschewed full diplomatic relations, siding with the Palestinians and denouncing what many in its ranks termed the “Zionist enterprise” as an imperialist creation of Western colonial powers. Nor did it help that many Indians were wary of another state whose national identity was defined on the basis of a religion (Judaism), just like India’s nemesis—the Muslim state of Pakistan. Moreover, the Indian government was reluctant to adopt any position that might antagonize its sizeable Muslim minority.

Not until 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and India’s adoption of a new economic liberalization policy, did New Delhi finally establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.

The extent of India’s official attitude change toward Israel was evident eight years later, when India’s President K. R. Narayanan proclaimed: “We in India hold in admiration the immense progress that the people of Israel have made in various fields….There exists enormous potential for enhancing the depth and content of our interaction…as well as in the sphere of defense cooperation.”

Indeed, that “enormous potential” for cooperation has been realized in defense and technology—areas in which Israel has acquired exceptional expertise—and new inroads are being made in agriculture and rural development as well.

Security & Military Matters

In 2003, Yuval Steinitz, then head of the Israeli Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, assessed the strategic alliance with India as “a very high priority, second only to relations with the United States.”

A central factor in the development of that alliance has been the significant scope of military equipment and expertise Israel is providing India. Indeed, some analysts believe that Israel has overtaken Russia to become India’s largest supplier of military equipment and expertise, with sales of land-based surveillance systems, seaborne missiles, and more exceeding $2 billion per year.

A quantum leap breakthrough occurred in 2004, when the U.S. sanctioned Israel’s sale to India of a $1 billion Phalcon airborne early-warning command and control system. Four years earlier the U.S. had blocked a similar sale to China, a clear signal that whereas Washington saw supplying advanced military systems to Beijing as inimical to American interests, selling to New Delhi was not.

Revenues from these sales have helped Israel to offset research and development costs for the weaponry needed to maintain its military edge over its adversaries. To remain viable, Israel’s defense industries need to export approximately 70% of production, and today India is Israel’s largest market.

While at first the flow of equipment and expertise was unidirectional—Israel supplying India—currently the two nations are engaged in a growing number of joint enterprises. On January 21, 2008, for example, an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket propelled into orbit a TecSAR Israeli reconnaissance satellite that Israel was not able to launch from its own territory (because of geopolitical and gravitational considerations).

Cooperation in the naval sphere could potentially serve both India’s declared aim to develop its blue water navy (a maritime force capable of operating on the “high seas” outside the territorial waters of the home nation)—and Israel’s increasingly challenging geo-strategic needs. Given its miniscule territorial dimensions after withdrawing from Gaza in a vain quest for peace and the growing Iranian nuclear threat, Israel is compelled to turn to the marine theater for second-strike capability (a country’s assured ability to respond to an attack with a counterattack that will inflict unacceptable damage on the aggressor). Such capacity is essential for nations upholding a no-first-use policy (not to use nuclear weapons as a means of warfare unless first attacked by an adversary utilizing nuclear, chemical, or biological warfare). As the international relations and strategic affairs analyst Subhash Kapila has observed, “…both Israel and India are potential targets for first-use nuclear strikes by their adversaries”—in each case, an Islamic nuclear bomb. The seaborne second-strike capability “has to be operative from the Indian Ocean,” Kapila writes, “and hence strategic cooperation with the Indian Navy is an imperative.”

If there have been any joint activities in the development of nuclear capabilities, they are classified. Still, then Indian Home Minister L. K. Advani (who later became deputy prime minister) openly declared on his 2000 visit to Israel that India is agreeable to cooperating with Israel on a range of areas, including “nuclear cooperation.”

Trade & Investment

Given israel’s considerable success in launching companies on international capital markets—outside North America it is the number one foreign issuer on the NASDAQ—many Israeli corporations (e.g., Ness software and Teva pharmaceuticals) have invested in Indian companies.

Indiais investing in Israel too. In 2007, for example, the Indian conglomerate Jain Irrigation acquired a 50% stake in Israel’s NanDan irrigation technology company to create NaanDanJain Irrigation Ltd., arguably the world’s largest manufacturer of irrigation systems.

Moreover, India—one of the world’s fastest growing economies, averaging nearly 6% GDP growth over two decades—has become Israel’s third largest trading partner in Asia. Whereas up to 1992, merchandise trade was comprised primarily of diamonds, diversification has rapidly ensued to encompass such manufactured goods as machinery, medical equipment, and fertilizer.

Given the growing animosity of European Union countries toward the Jewish state, Israel’s cultivation of the Indian consumer has strategic implications. Indeed, should the European Union impose economic sanctions resulting in Israeli sales losses in European markets, India’s middle class—with its rapidly increasing purchasing power—presents a significant alternative.

Agriculture & Rural Development

India’s first prime minister, jawaharlal Nehru, once declared: “Everything else can wait but not agriculture.” Writing for the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization in 2007, Mira Kamdar reaffirmed this view: “Agriculture represents much more to India than a mere slice of economic pie—it is the very lifeblood of the country, the source of livelihood for 115 million farming families and 70% of the country’s population, the base upon which the entire edifice of the nation rises. With annual growth in manufacturing and in services each topping 11%, agriculture’s 2.3% growth rate lags stubbornly behind the 4% target India must hit if it is to push overall growth—now at 9.2%—into double digits.”

Seventy percent of India’s population resides in rural areas, and more than two-thirds of them live in poverty, earning less than two dollars a day. Given that the rural vote is a decisive factor in democratic elections and continued conditions of relative deprivation could unleash large-scale instability and violence across the sub-continent, the Indian government cannot afford to ignore India’s struggling small-scale farmers.

Israel’s involvement in India’s agro-sector is less developed than in the military and technological sectors, but shows signs of growth as both nations recognize the potential benefits. India consistently sends (by far) the largest national delegation to Israel’s triennial Agritech, one of the largest agro-technology exhibitions in the world. As a result of such contacts, “Israel’s drip irrigation and other systems…are prevalent throughout India,” writes Mark Sofer, the Israeli ambassador to the Indian Embassy in New Delhi, including the “establishment in Rajasthan of seven olive plantations, using the world’s most advanced technologies…and the establishment of a dairy farm in Andhra Pradesh using Israeli technology [which] brings yields of over 40 litres of milk per cow per day [about 14 times the national average].” India and Israel have also established agricultural research and development centers in the areas of New Delhi, Maharashtra, and Mumbai.

Development vs. Diplomacy

While the level of Indo-Israeli economic cooperation is at an all-time high, the same cannot be said on the diplomatic front. New Delhi has consistently supported anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N. and other international forums, claiming concern for the fate of expatriate Indian workers in Muslim countries in the Gulf region as well as the fear of a possible backlash from both its large Muslim population and the Muslim states, still the country’s main energy suppliers.

Perhaps most alarming to Israel is New Delhi’s cordial relations with Tehran. In 2008–09, Iran frequently objected to Pakistan’s attempts to draft anti-India resolutions at international associations, such as the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference). Indian officials have made it clear to Israel that they will not disrupt their relations with Iran, citing a long history of cultural ties between the two nations, India’s strategic considerations regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan with whom Iran shares a common border, and the need for Iranian oil. (Iran is India’s second largest oil supplier, and about 40% of the refined oil consumed by Iran is imported from India.) Nonetheless, India’s backing—albeit under reportedly heavy U.S. pressure—of IAEA resolutions critical of Iran’s nuclear policy in 2005, 2006, and 2009 has led some commentators to suggest that India’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, combined with ongoing close relations with Israel, may signal a possible deterioration of New Delhi-Tehran relations.

Another area of potential friction between Israel and India is Jerusalem’s supplying Beijing with military equipment. Since the early 1950s, India and China have engaged in a number of border disputes, notably the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the Chola incident of 1967 (which resulted in military conflicts), and a skirmish in 1987. Territorial disputes have continued, mainly over Aksai Chin in India’s northwest corner at the junction of India, Pakistan, and China as well as over Arunachal Pradesh in the far northeast of India; however, in the short term these controversies are unlikely to erupt into violence.

Military cooperation between Israel and China has existed since the 1980s, despite the fact that the two nations have no formal diplomatic relations. According to some estimates, Israel has sold China $4 billion in arms and is China’s second largest arms supplier, second only to Russia, making China another vital market for Israel’s military industries. According to the Asian Times (2004): “The Israel-China military relationship also contributed to China softening its anti-Israel stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. China’s policy moved from its pro-Arab tilt to a more nuanced appreciation of the Israeli position.”

The India-Israel-U.S. Nexus

At the beginning of the 21st century, a very clear rationale was articulated for a trilateral axis comprising Israel, India, and the U.S. Speaking in 2003 before the American Jewish Congress, Indian National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra said: “India, the United States, and Israel have some fundamental similarities. We are all democracies, sharing a common vision of pluralism, tolerance, and equal opportunity. Stronger India-U.S. relations and India-Israel relations have a natural logic.”

However, as former Indian Ambassador M. K. Bhadrakumar has put it: “The U.S.’s current strategic priorities in the region and India’s expectations are [now] diverging.”

“In 2007,” explains Indian politician Ajay Singh, “India was to be a ‘strategic partner’ to counter China’s growing influence and act as a counterweight to contain it in the region. “A ‘long-term strategic relationship’ was in the cards…. [Then] the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan had led to a growing dependence on Pakistan, irrespective of its double dealings…[and] in appeasing Pakistan in the plans for an Afghan solution, India has been virtually sidelined….”

Robert Blackwill, who served as the U.S. ambassador to India from 2001 to 2003, also notes that differing perceptions on such core issues as Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Iran, India’s nuclear weapons, civil nuclear cooperation, and climate change could cause “a variety of problems in the U.S.-India relationship in the next months and years….”

Nevertheless, the U.S., India, and Israel all share a common cause in fighting terrorism. An American-endorsed alliance between India and Israel could help forge a potent stabilizing force in this volatile region, asserts Brigadier Arun Sahgal, who is responsible for long-term strategic assessments in India’s Joint Staff. “The main purpose [of Indo-Israeli-U.S. entente],” he explains, “is to keep the theater of the Indian Ocean and its Eastern approaches to Europe free from radical and fundamental forces that are showing increasing signs of consolidation.”

According to Indian journalist Swapan Dasgupta, both Israel and India acknowledge that “a successful war against terrorism cannot be fought without the participation of [America], the only country whose definition of national interest is not circumscribed by geography….New York, Washington, Jerusalem, Hebron, Srinagar, Mumbai: We are in it together [sic].”

Such a trilateral alliance could also serve as a nucleus around which other like-minded regimes could coalesce. India’s national security advisor Brajesh Mishra envisions establishing a “core…of democratic societies [India, Israel, U.S.] [with] the political will and moral authority to…take on international terrorism in a holistic and focused manner.” The Washington Post ’s Jim Hoagland agrees: “[How] the [U.S.] campaign [against terror] is conducted…can establish new organizing principles and priorities for international relations for years…to come….The future belongs to democratic leaders [such as Israel and India]…[our] true allies, however difficult [it is] dealing with [them].”

The Indo-Israel bond has withstood the vagaries of political upheaval in both countries. Perhaps most significantly for Israel, the bilateral ties have continued unimpeded regardless of the Indian party in power. No major political party in India today—hawkish or dovish—opposes the Indo-Israeli nexus.

Ironically, the greatest possible impediment to continued development of India-Israel relations is the state of Israeli-American relations. Just as close U.S.-Israel ties constitute a great inducement for fostering strong New Delhi-Jerusalem ties, a fraying U.S.-Israeli relationship—perceived or real—may have the opposite effect.

Still, there is good reason to be optimistic that the Indo-Israel nexus will continue to thrive, with America’s blessing. For just as Israel, arguably the world’s most beleaguered democracy, has established a special relationship with the world’s most powerful democracy, there appear to be strong—and mutual—incentives for Israel to build a similar relationship with the world’s most populous democracy.

Martin Sherman, the 2009–2010 visiting Israeli Schusterman Scholar at HUC-JIR and USC, is academic director of the Jerusalem Summit lectures in Security Studies Program at Tel Aviv University, research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, and author of two books and numerous articles on Israeli security and foreign policy.

November 9, 2010 | 1 Comment »

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  1. Good post. I have met many people from India and there is a definite warm kindred spirit with these people. They also have confidence in themselves and dont seem to be over sensitive with race the way some of the Asian cultures are.