I previously wrote about the gradual transition of India’s Israel policy, from one of hostility to the collaborative stance adopted in 1992 – and the rationale for this shift.
Here, I will further analyze the causes for India’s diplomatic shift and provide a timeline of key events in the changing relationship.
[A] A DEEPER INSIGHT INTO THE CAUSES
(1) BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER
“What have the Arabs given us, if I may ask? Did they vote for us in the Kashmir issue? Were they supportive of us when we had the East Pakistan crisis (1971)?,” blasted J.N. Dixit, the foreign secretary of India – and Indian National Congress (INC) Party member – in a January 1992 interview, shortly after normalization with Israel.
The eventual rapprochement with Israel was primarily because of the Arab world’s constant betrayal of India by its robust support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue – in spite of New Delhi’s hardline backing of Arab causes (especially that of Palestine) in the international arena.
The Palestinians themselves overwhelmingly favoured Pakistan over India. This was predicted by many, when starting 1951, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hussam ad-Din Jarallah, became a staunch defender of Pakistani claims to Kashmir after visiting Pakistan that year.
Israel ALWAYS stood by India’s side on the Kashmir issue, even with New Delhi’s outright hostility.
Dixit’s anger was reflective of the left-wing INC party’s frustration with the Arab world. No longer were grievances over a failed West Asia policy unique to the opposition.
(2) THE IRAQI INVASION OF KUWAIT
India, in the aftermath of Saddam Hussain’s forceful annexation of Kuwait in 1990, supported him until it could airlift the 150,000 or so Indians living in Kuwait. Soon after, India became critical of Iraq, even allowing American warplanes to refuel in Mumbai.
Israel proved its worthiness as an ally, when, in spite of India’s diplomatic belligerence, she offered to transfer to Israel the thousands of Indians languishing in Jordan (after escaping Iraq) and fly them to India for free. The absence of ties caused various bureaucratic hurdles, and the help wasn’t accepted – exposing those stranded to hunger, rape, and theft, leading to a great deal of anger and debate against the INC’s policies.
After supporting Saddam, the PLO and Yasser Arafat lost prestige tremendously in West Asia. Justifiably, Arafat was accused of treachery by the Kuwaitis. He was also shunned by the Gulf States who feared that they could be “next”.
India was heavily dependent on the Gulf Emirates for energy and many economic benefits. To alleviate any anger over its initial support for Saddam, New Delhi distanced itself from the PLO, prioritizing the beneficial relationship with the Gulf over the unrewarding ideological pro-Palestinian espousal.
(3) DECLINE OF THE SOVIET UNION
This event had multiple outcomes:
• Erosion of ideological foundations – From the outset, the mass-murderers of the Soviet Union were the self-appointed guardians of the oppressed, torch bearers of the opposition to what they foolishly insisted was Western “Imperialism.” This clever distortion, that Communism was an anti-Colonial, emancipatory creed, effectively enticed into the Soviet stable many third world countries, themselves victims of colonialism (including India) – resulting in a drastic re-alignment of these nations’ foreign policies.
The post-1967 Soviet and Eastern Bloc acrimony towards Israel and the US reverberated across the post-colonial, non-aligned world, as this hostility represented progressive antagonism towards what the Soviets propagandized as Western-backed “Imperialism”.
The USSR’s collapse obliterated the ideological foundation of India’s anti-Israel and anti-American stance. With its doctrinal mentor normalizing relations with the Jewish State, India followed suit.
Furthermore, the loss of a diplomatic and military godfather necessitated practicality. India could ill-afford being carried away by its hardline, utopia-seeking sentiments.
• Economic liberalisation – Witnessing the failure of Socialist practices world-over, India moved away from Soviet models of closed, rigid economic administration and governance. Liberalization reforms in the economic sphere prompted a globalized outlook, leading to drastic changes in New Delhi’s world view.
This enabled the rise of a powerful, business-oriented middle class that yielded tremendous influence on their respective states’ policies. It saw immense trading potential in Israel, and had established a strong commercial bond since the decades of disaffection. Easing state control allowed regional governments to deal with Israel directly, without New Delhi’s interference. Because of these two factors, states such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Orissa, and Punjab were among the first to forge strong ties with Israel in a host of non-defence sectors.
A prominent Muslim journalist, Saeed Naqvi, an avid supporter of strong ties with Israel, all through the 1990s, wrote extensively about the benefits that would come with normalizing relations between the two nations.
• The Arab world’s tacit acceptance of Israel – With the Arab world losing its super-power backing, sustaining a warlike atmosphere of perpetual hostility to the militarily superior Jewish state was impossible – prioritizing the use of petro-dollar backed propaganda and the diplomatic arena to continue its antipathy towards Jerusalem. The Madrid Middle-East Peace Conference of 1991 was a sign of the Arabs accepting, at the very least, the reality of Israel. India relented on its dogmatic hangover, stemming from its self-enforced, hardline Marxist ideals – ideals which were antithetical to its Hindu populace’s sentiments on Israel. In the late 1980s, Chidambaram Subramaniam (former INC cabinet member under PM Indira Gandhi) publicly asked: “Do we need to be more Arab than Egypt?”
Besides, India’s eagerness to play a role in the peace process required embracing both sides. Even the PLO leadership was aware that the India-Israel bond was inevitable. During Prime Minister Narsimha Rao’s hosting of Yasser Arafat – only a few days prior to normalization with Israel in January 1992 – the latter gave his approval, albeit hesitantly.
• The rise of internal political opposition – The Arab world’s constant double-crosses over Kashmir, coupled with the fact that the overwhelming majority of India’s Hindu population loathed its pro-Arab stance, led to the rise of political factions that preached a diametrically opposite West Asia policy. Many of the INC’s coalition partners – the Praja Socialist Party (PSP), the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP), etc. – identified from the outset with Israel’s socialist movement (Mapai). Prioritizing domestic issues over foreign policy, they toed the party-line on Israel, mutedly expressing support for Israel and criticizing the INC. Also, the majority of the INC’s members were by now in favour of allying with Israel.
Abandonment wasn’t a worry during the Cold War because the opposition was rigidly bound by Moscow’s anti-Israel foreign policy dictates. But post-1991, India was free to steer in whichever direction it chose. Establishing ties with Israel struck a popular, non-partisan chord and if the INC didn’t act, it risked a massive candidate exodus to the rising Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), that was strongly in favour or normalization with Israel. Defection was on the horizon.
• India’s quest for super-power backing – Since even before 1991, the wealthy and influential Indian community in the US lobbied hard to bring India into the US’s stable. After the Soviet breakup, it urged White House policy-makers to overlook India’s Cold War animus. The East-Indian and Jewish communities in the US shared very cordial relations – the latter being a prominent role model for the former – providing impetus for the forging of a powerful India-US (and therefore, a powerful India-Israel) alliance. In collaboration with AIPAC, the AJC, and the ADL, Indo-Americans worked towards bringing India, the US, and Israel closer together. An important figure in these efforts is Madhav Das Nalapat.
With the above-mentioned changes in the domestic political climate and a radical reshuffling of the global power structure, reconciliation was inevitable.
Enter the one agent that has disproportionately clouded India’s overall foreign policy calculations since 1947.
Barely a week after PV Narsimha Rao became the Prime Minister in 1991, Pakistan-backed Kashmiri militants kidnapped a group of Israeli tourists, killing one. This compelled co-ordination with Israeli diplomats. Rao waived all restrictions on the Mumbai-based Israeli Consul, offering full co-operation in resolving the crisis. This event marked the beginning of many efforts on his part to bring the process to its logical conclusion, namely, the establishment of formal ties with the Jewish state in January 1992.
Instrumental in that outcome was India’s Ambassador to the US, a Muslim gentleman named Abid Hussein, a staunch defender of Israel and the Jewish people, who actively sought to convince Rao that Israel would give the country a superior edge over Pakistan, and that an alliance with the Jewish state was indispensable to India’s long-term interests.
As the Iron Curtain had fallen, the world’s attention was now focused on other, smaller conflicts. All eyes were on Kashmir.
Fearing international repercussions, Pakistan could not resort to conventional warfare, nor could it give up on the dream of acquiring Kashmir. The White House’s approach to Pakistan didn’t deviate from that of the Cold War. It continued to expend huge amounts of financial aid, weaponry, and training to Pakistan, which passed on these generous gifts to radical Jihadist groups to launch in Kashmir the campaign its army could not. The paper trail to Islamabad’s involvement in terror was difficult to establish, allowing it to maintain a veneer of deniability, and being religious zealots, these Mujahideen groups had little to no financial interests, rendering terrorism the perfect weapon. To this day, the various Jihadi groups inside India, especially in Kashmir, are the “unofficial wing” of the Pakistani military.
These Pakistan-backed militants, driven by messianic zeal, viciously terrorized the people of Kashmir (especially the Hindu population), and launched major attacks in India’s metropolitan cities, crippling the nation.
(Example – The 1993 multiple bomb blasts in Mumbai, that led to the massacre of 257 people and the grave injury of over 1400, masterminded by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in collaboration with Mumbai-based Muslim mafia figures Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar, Ibrahim “Tiger” Memon, and many others, all of whom now live under Pakistani protection.)
Furthermore, Islamabad had full diplomatic immunity thanks to the unquestioning support from the OIC, and American imperviousness to its activities.
Because of this, India’s heavy dependence on Moscow for military and diplomatic support transcended the Cold War. Furthermore, India was far from being in the US’s or Israel’s good books and couldn’t risk jeopardizing existing relations while transitioning to new ones. She did not adopt an “either/or” strategy with regards to Israel and the Arab world; but rather, played a careful balancing act.
Although Islamabad didn’t hope to annex Kashmir using terror-by-proxy, it hoped “to bleed India by a thousand cuts” and create the right circumstances to facilitate an easy acquisition. Chief among the long list of its objectives were/are the following:
• The ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus – This would help Pakistan should the fate of Kashmir be decided via plebiscite. Kashmiri Hindus were brutally targeted over the next two decades (and to this day).
• Radicalizing the state’s Muslim population – Pakistan used the heavy funding from its Arab and American benefactors to radicalize the state’s Muslim population by financing radical, separatist Islamist preachers and religious fundamentalist groups, thereby spreading religious fundamentalism and anti-Indian sentiment among Muslim Kashmiris.
• Weakening the Indian armed forces’ and Kashmiri law enforcement’s grip on the state – Mass deaths of civilians and military/law enforcement personnel would lead to lawlessness and a weakened/decreased/demoralized military presence in the state. Not to mention, sow immense panic and chaos among civilians. This outcome would ensure an easy grab for the Pakistanis via the steady infiltration of its regular troops or the various Jihadist groups backed by Islamabad.
• Disrupting India’s, specifically, Kashmir’s economy – Self-explanatory.
Although Pakistan failed miserably in achieving these goals, it inflicted (and continues to inflict) severe damage on India, evidenced by the immense number of Indian civilian and military deaths, and also the tremendous economic loss.
This situation was not unlike the one Israel faced in ALL parts of the country since the very beginning, reaffirming the rationale behind India’s natural brotherhood with Israel. Israel thrived in spite of these circumstances. It had mastered counter-terrorism and intelligence-gathering strategies and was a military superpower, providing further impetus to the popular support for a strong India-Israel bond in Indian political and civilian circles all throughout the 1990s.
[B] PERIOD OF RAPID TRANSITION (1991-2000)
Establishment of ties saw no radical departure in New Delhi’s support for a two-state solution. However, its sentimental, ideological pledge to the Palestinian cause began to erode. Voting patterns at the UN and other international forums against the US and Israel didn’t diverge much, but India learned to bifurcate the establishment of strong bilateral ties from the complexities of the peace process. “Support” for the Palestinians slowly but surely began to shift wholly into the realm of verbal posturing.
The fledgling relationship faced an incessant barrage of roadblocks, many critics voiced their opposition. One outcome of that was India’s refusal to sign a Civil Aviation Agreement with Israel in 1993. However, a slow but sure forging of ties was apparent.
Opposition by radical left-wing and Islamist factions remained. However, in mainstream parties like the INC, opponents of normalization and expanding ties with Israel were from the dying (and increasingly irrelevant) breed of old-school, Soviet Union-worshipping, anti-Western, radical socialist ideologues who refused to take off their philosophical blinders. Decades of brainwashing with anti-Western, pro-Soviet propaganda rendered it difficult for them to adjust to new realities.
Shortly after normalization, the deportation of Hamas militants in 1992 evoked nothing more than an acknowledgement from the INC government, as did the Hebron massacre by Kahanist, Baruch Goldstein.
Diplomatic visits started soon. In May 1993, Shimon Peres, then Foreign Minister, visited India to discuss terrorism and India’s territorial integrity. He wholeheartedly supported India’s stand on Kashmir, stating: “We support fully and completely the territorial integrity of India and agree with the Shimla Agreement.”
Prime Minister hopeful Arjun Singh of the INC, then Minister of Human Resources Development, himself a vociferous opponent of normalization, broke taboo and visited Israel in 1994. Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the BJP Chief Minister of Rajasthan, also visited Israel that year.
In 1995, Prime Ministerial candidates, HD Deve Gowda, Janata Dal Party Chief Minister of Karnataka, and LK Advani, leader of the BJP, visited Israel. Gowda, who was elected in 1996, hosted President Weizmann, who came with a 24-member business delegation, in December. Weizmann laid the foundation of the Israeli-Indian Research and Development Farm at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in Pusa near New Delhi. Soon after, Gowda met PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the Davos World Economic Forum summit. After these two meetings, trade expanded into a host of sectors – especially agriculture, water management and purification, scientific R&D, hi-tech, and foreign investment. The Israeli Air Force chief visited India in March 1995.
Future President, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, a prominent scientist and one of the most pro-Israel voices in the country, visited the Jewish state in 1996, when he was the scientific advisor to the Defence Minister. Also, the Indian Air Force Chief, SK Sarin, visited Israel in July 1996.
After 1991, Russian manufacturers were simply unable to keep up with India’s growing military needs the way the USSR had. The US wasn’t eager to forgive India’s Cold War affinity for Moscow. India looked to Israel for its military supplies.
Israel’s expertise in Russian military equipment made it India’s primary partner in modernizing and upgrading its armed forces. While high- profile visits continued, the rapidly growing defence ties were, and continue to be, kept STRICTLY secret, with the occasional disclosure.
These bilateral contacts and negotiations set the stage for rapidly growing collaboration on a wide range of issues such as counter-terrorism, intelligence cooperation, avionics, radars, anti-missile systems, aircraft upgrading, etc
The 1998 ascent to power of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition — whose foreign policy was extremely pro-Western and pro-America — with Atal Behari Vajpayee as PM, saw a further surge in ties, precisely as a result of the NDA’s pro-Western outlook.
In response to India’s Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998, as expected, with the exception of Saddam’s Iraq, the Arab world and the OIC strongly condemned India’s actions, while being virtually silent on Pakistan’s nuclear tests only a few weeks later.
There was speculation that Dr. Kalam, who played a pivotal organizational, technical, and political role in the tests, had visited Israel for technical assistance again in the months prior. This view, that India collaborated with Israel for the nuclear tests, was further cemented when, in the aftermath of these tests, the whole world came down on India like a ton of bricks, but Israel – although refusing to comment initially – stood strongly by India’s side. The US began imposing sanctions on India, which would have entailed:
- Terminating assistance to India except for humanitarian aid. At the time, U.S. economic and humanitarian aid amounted to about $142 million a year.
- Barring sales of certain defense and technology equipment.
- Ending credit and credit guarantees to India.
- Coercing international financial institutions to cease lending to India, which had borrowed about $1.5 billion from the World Bank in 1997.
The US didn’t completely follow-up on these harsh sanctions, and many attributed this to Israel’s lobbying on India’s behalf in Washington. Thanks to Israel, India was spared the impending diplomatic and economic backlash, reaffirming its potential as a valuable strategic partner.
India joined the UN peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in November 1998. The Indian army chief, VP Malik, made an official visit to Tel Aviv in March 1998.
National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra made regular trips to Israel starting 1998, laying the groundwork for expanded cooperation in the military and intelligence spheres. Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee also visited Israel the same year. Continuing its commitment to the Palestinians, India hosted Arafat in April 1999.
A major catalyst to the India-Israel alliance was the 1999 Kargil War. India’s desperate pleas for assistance were heeded almost immediately only by Israel, which supplied ordnance, laser-guided bombs, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), etc. News sources like Jane’s Defense Weekly also reported that Israeli security and intelligence officers regularly visited the Kashmiri border to aid in intelligence gathering activities and training. All of this altered the course of the conflict in India’s favour and firmly forged Israel’s credibility and reliability as an ally. The Arab world’s unquestioning support for Pakistan in this conflict was hardly surprising.
LK Advani, now the Home Minister, visited Israel again in 2000, as did Defence Minister Jaswant Singh. Both men continued on the path of traditional support for the Palestinian cause by meeting with Arafat on the same trip. Najma Heptullah, a Muslim INC member of the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of Parliament) also visited Israel. A Knesset delegation led by Amnon Rubenstein visited India.
The rapidly solidifying consensus on Israel became clear when Jyoti Basu, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) Chief Minister of West Bengal, visited Israel with a 25-member delegation. He met with PM Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres. Soon after, West Bengal CPI-M leader, Somnath Chatterjee, went along with a huge business delegation to promote a host of research and investment opportunities. In turn, Shimon Peres, then the Minister for Regional Cooperation, visited India both in 2000 and 2001.
With the outbreak of the Second Intifada, government officials issued very balanced public statements of criticism of both sides – supplying USD 50,000 worth of medical aid to the PLO. Ten years ago, any Israeli-Arab conflict would have led to harsh condemnations of the Jewish state and vociferous support for the Arabs. In addition, Arab insistence to re-establish Zionism as racism at the shameful Durban World Conference against Racism in 2001 was simply brushed aside by Indian leaders.
During the Intifada, the hard left’s bonhomie with Israel ended but ONLY on the diplomatic front. Example — The hypocritical CPI-M reverted to its pre-1992 rhetorical harshness — grounded in conspiracy theories – but refused to break its economic collaboration with Israel in West Bengal, the state it ruled.
With the USSR gone, India faced very unfamiliar and uncertain circumstances. It began weighing its West-Asia approach purely in terms of concrete national interests. The non-beneficial, emotional attachment to the Palestinians, steeped in idealism, began disintegrating. In short, principle began to yield some place to pragmatism.
By 2000, the ideological commitment had drastically softened, reduced to a few symbolic gestures, minuscule financial donations, minimal collaboration in a few sectors with the PA, and strong lip service in the international arena. This provided a facade of “support” for the Arab/Palestinian cause, while the juicy deals took place behind the scenes. Under the INC, the Janata Dal and the BJP, criticism of Israel became very muted and balanced.
Furthermore, India’s support for the Palestinian issue waned as it became inexorably clear that, aside from Saddam’s Iraq, the Arab world would not cease its steadfast support for Pakistan on Kashmir, despite India’s history of championing Palestinian/Arab causes.
The expanding ties with Israel did not harm India’s standing with the Gulf states or with Iran. In fact, aside from Egyptian dictator Mubarak’s strong displeasure about India’s growing fondness for Israel, the Arab world, realizing what India had to offer, strengthened bilateral trade relations with New Delhi from 1992 onwards (even as it continued to aid Pakistan on many fronts). Iran, seeking to end its regional isolation, looked to New Delhi as a potential partner, saying nothing about the burgeoning alliance.
Although the hard left’s romance with Israel was short lived in diplomatic terms, a broad consensus was reached in India, both on the left (even the hard left) and on the right, that Israel was an indispensable ally to India.
The President of India (INC), KR Narayanan, in his 2000 speech in New Delhi to Israeli Ambassador David Aphek, spoke proudly about the burgeoning alliance with Israel, the tremendous potential of that relationship, and assured his full cooperation in further expansion of ties.
The inevitability of a powerful India-Israel alliance was further cemented after 9/11, when the US initiated an anti-terrorism nexus with India and Israel, which I intend to cover in the next installment of this series.