Thirty years after the establishment of formal diplomatic relations, ten years after the Arab Spring that marginalised the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, five years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel, and two years after The Abraham Accords, the fact that relations between Israel and India have been fundamentally transformed is no longer open to debate. Or is it? Apparently, there is still someone, not just anyone, but a former Indian ambassador to several West Asian countries who thinks that India wants an ‘affair’, and not a serious relationship with Israel.
In his new book West Asia at War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games, former IFS officer Talmiz Ahmad quotes from a half-decade-old article by Israeli researcher Dr Oshrit Birvadker to tell his readers that, in fact, nothing substantial has changed in Israel-India relations. Everything is just a fleeting affair.
Until the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, India had a pro-Arab policy and a strong commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) ethos. In 1992, India and Israel established full diplomatic relations, but India preferred not to disclose the full cooperation between the countries till 2014. India had historically supported virtually all United Nations resolutions favouring Palestinians.
Merely two years before Modi came to power, India co-sponsored and voted in favour of the UNGA Resolution that enabled Palestine to become a ‘Non-Member Observer State’ at the UN. Symbolically, the vote was on 29 November, the same date the UN General Assembly voted 65 years earlier in favour of the partition plan of Mandatory Palestine. A total of 13 states voted against the partition plan, ten of which were Muslim states. India was one of the few non-Muslim countries that voted against Resolution 181.
On the day that Talmiz Ahmad’s article was published in ThePrint, we were at a special event at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. The Foreign Ministry hosted a delegation of 90 entrepreneurs and investors from India’s JITO Incubation and Innovation Foundation. A number of diplomats, academics and business figures presented a broad picture of Israel-India relations.
The wide spectrum of issues in which India and Israel are cooperating surprised us, even as Israeli writers with a unique interest in India. But not only presentations, deals, and statistics were presented at the event. One of the speakers narrated the experiences of Israeli diplomats when they come to serve at our embassy in New Delhi. The Indian love for Israel cannot be compared to any European country. India’s deep appreciation for the State does not depend on one government or another, it is alive and kicking among the bureaucracy, various influencers and the general public.
Although this was a private delegation of entrepreneurs, which Israel is accustomed to, the Foreign Ministry did everything to embrace it, including having the house chef prepare an elaborate vegetarian buffet that included dishes from the Jain kitchen.
Naor Gilon, Ambassador of Israel to India, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, spoke with the delegation about the tremendous achievements of India and Israel in agricultural cooperation, citing examples of fields that have tripled or quadrupled their yield since adopting Israeli technologies. He told them about how there are more Indian students in Israel than from any other foreign country, most doing advanced degrees in STEM. He also devoted time to the intellectual property challenge in the Make in India programme, which is well known to Israeli Indian entrepreneurs who want to collaborate in business ventures.
Kobi Shoshani, Consul General of Israel in Mumbai, was praised time and again for his proactive role in promoting the JITO delegation’s visit. Along with the formal discourse on the decision to sign a free Indo-Israeli trade agreement, there was also an informal discussion on the chemistry between Indians and Israelis in the fields of diplomacy, science, tourism, agriculture, and of course security.
Siddharth Jain, chairperson of the JITO, told Israeli Foreign Ministry officials about their falling in love with Israel. One can be cynical towards businesspeople, wherever they are, but the members of the Indian delegation spoke wholeheartedly. It was crystal clear, and it remained that way as we toured the Old City of Jerusalem after the event was over.
But our goal is not to convince an Indian diplomat that he is wrong about the sentiment, that his chapter on Israel is shoddy, lazy, and at times exotically of touch with present-day reality, that Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel cannot really be compared to the minor visit to the Palestinian Authority—one that has been described as ‘A Strategy of Tokenism’.
India-Israel relations now
Our goal is to examine how it came about that a man without a diplomatic background like Prime Minister Modi, understood West Asia better than a veteran Indian diplomat for whom WANA (Western Asia-North Africa) was a second home.
It is paradoxical that a politician who has been shunned by the West for more than a decade understood better than his diplomats that he could come to visit Israel, show open affection for its right-wing prime minister, violate a long tradition of anti-Israel votes in international institutions—and still not be published by Gulf states and Saudi Arabia for it. Not one Indian worker was going to be deported from Dubai or Bahrain because the Indian prime minister had decided to show his love for the Jewish state, no sudden UN resolution was to be suggested vis-a-vis Kashmir.
Today, we are in the era of alliances such as the I2U2 West Asian Quad in the Middle East and it is clear that Israel’s relations with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Israel remain intentionally unofficial as of yet, are better than the Sunni bloc’s relations with the Palestinians, which are at an all-time low. Relations between Israel and Egypt are also perhaps the best since the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979. Even a delegation from Pakistan was seen here, with PTV newscaster Ahmad Qureishi giving an interview to Kan 11 national television, praising David Ben-Gurion as a state builder. It seems to have gotten him suspended back home, but he retaliated by giving Kan 11 another Zoom interview, declaring that he has no remorse.
But Narendra Modi dramatically changed India’s policy toward Israel when the tip of the iceberg of the Sunni-Israeli alliance was much smaller than what we are witnessing now.
Manifestation of a mindset
On a broader level, Talmiz Ahmad is not only an individual, but a manifestation of a mindset: Inherent suspicion of the Western world, unconditional forgiveness of the failures and crimes of secular dictatorships in the Middle East, demonisation of Israel and the Jews as those who magically control American policy and power projection, and a willful blindness to the established admiration in the Arab world for Israel’s achievements, even at the price of aligning with some of the most destructive and retrograde forces in the entire Muslim world.
Ahmad cannot point to a single prominent cooperation India has with the Palestinian authority, its businessmen or universities, for the good of Indian citizens. What will Indian diplomacy have to show from decades more of alliance with the Palestinians that can compare to what was accomplished with Israel in 2022 alone? Perhaps Mr Ahmad should also do a comparative analysis of any texts about India across the border in Pakistan Studies classes to any text taught about Jews and Israel in Palestinian schools, and tell the readers which is more shockingly violent. Is that the future he envisions?
When outdated ideologies of the most impractical kind combine with nasty prejudices to shape a diplomat’s worldview, he has no real chance of doing his professional job and dispense wise and actionable advice to the political echelon.
After reading the strange analysis of Israeli-Indian relations, we were curious and turned to Dr Oshrit Birvadker to check if she still thinks Israel-India relations are just an affair. “No”, she said immediately. Her article was published before The Abraham Accords, which at last removed any lingering Indian dilemma of having to choose sides between Israel and the Arab world. Sardonically, she drew our attention to the fact that even her name was misspelt by Talmiz Ahmad.
Maybe in this book, this is actually a blessing.
Lev Aran is a former coordinator of the Israel-India Parliamentary Friendship League and an Israel-based freelance columnist and journalist. Yeshaya Rosenman is a freelance journalist and student of Indian Studies and Islamic Studies at Hebrew University. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)