Celebrating its Independence Day on August 15, the nation of India marked 63 years since the end of British rule in the sub-continent. In light of the two countries' more or less contemporaneous struggle for self-determination in the immediate aftermath of World War II, one might have thought that India would establish close ties with the newly born state of Israel straightaway. It did not happen.
Under Jawaharlal Nehru, India saw itself as a leader of the "non-aligned" bloc, and Israel as part of the West. Notwithstanding its conflict with Pakistan, its overwhelmingly Muslim neighbor, New Delhi also sought to establish itself on good terms with the Arab and Islamic world. To that end, it wholeheartedly adopted the Arab line at the UN and mapped out third-world strategy with Egypt's Gamal Nasser.
When it came to Jewish history and Zionist aspirations, India's founding elites labored under profound misapprehensions. In late 1938, in the shadow of Kristallnacht, Mohandas Gandhi wrote that he had no sympathy for the idea of a Jewish return to Zion. His advice to desperate and despairing European Jews was to face the Nazis with passivity; to the Jews in Palestine, he counseled an effort to convert Arab pogromists into friends.
India did finally recognize Israel in 1950, allowing Jerusalem to maintain a consular presence in Mumbai (then Bombay). But not until 1992 were full diplomatic relations established. By then, the Soviet empire had collapsed; Pakistan's A.Q. Khan was working feverishly on an Islamic bomb; and Egypt had long since made its peace with Israel.
In the years since then, the two countries have gradually drawn closer. Israelis are unabashedly smitten with India: about 35,000 of them, including many youngsters just out of army service, visit the country each year. Annual trade, which started at $200 million, has by now reached $3.5 billion, and this year India surpassed Europe as Israel's number-two export market (after the U.S.). Israel sells India minerals, fertilizer, chemicals, electronics, and, most significantly, military equipmemt.
Since the November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, security ties have also strengthened. Reportedly, the two countries are jointly developing a medium-range air-defense system. The Indian navy has visited Haifa port, and India has launched commercial satellites into orbit for Israel.
But then there is Iran, on which Delhi and Jerusalem are at cross-purposes. Iran is India's second biggest oil supplier, and India—competing with China in a race to dominate the world's economy—is heavily invested in Iran's energy sector. India-Iran trade has reportedly tripled in the past five years. Geopolitics plays a role as well: India imagines Iran can be persuaded to dampen Islamist extremism in the sub-continent and curb Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan.
And there are also the cold facts of demography. True, Israel's population of seven million includes 70,000 Indian Jews—but India is a vast, multiethnic country of a billion people, and its Muslim minority, 13 percent of the population, numbers 153 million, exceeding the combined populations of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Second only to Iran, India has the largest non-Arab Shi'ite population in the world. It is notable that Indian Muslims have no history of involvement in terrorism, and their religious authorities abjure political violence. Nor is India as a whole troubled by indigenous anti-Jewish sentiment. Still, the country's elites are thoroughly exposed to the prevailing global fault-finding of Israel and the concomitant rise in global anti-Semitism.
So the Israel-India relationship, while mutually vital, is delicate. Jerusalem would emphatically prefer New Delhi to stop enabling Iran, even as it must appreciate that India will calibrate its relationships according to its interests as it sees them. Under the circumstances, the question is what it would take to convince Indians that appeasing the imperialist mullahs in Tehran will in fact undermine India's long-term welfare and national interests.
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