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India, Israel

India - Israeli ties worry Iran and Palestine

Israeli Prime Minister  Benyamin Netanyahu (r) welcoms his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in Tel Aviv
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu (r) welcoms his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in Tel Aviv REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Israel for a three-day visit. It is the first ever visit by an Indian premier. India is currently the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment and the fact that Modi does not visit Palestine may point at a change in diplomatic direction.


Historically, India is one of the few countries, together with China, where Jews never faced prosecution.

“India is a very tolerant country,” says Efraim Inbar, a founding director of the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv.

“It has a lot of minorities, it has a very diverse population, and we are happy that India has this tradition, which is very different from the European tradition, where Jews have suffered from anti-Semitism, pogroms, for centuries.”

Indian scholars agree. “The Jews are a small minority in India,” says Anuradha Chenoi, a political scientist with the Jawar-halal Nehru University in New Delhi, who herself is married to a Jewish Indian.

“There is no conflict of interest and India has been open to the smaller minorities. Like the Parsi who migrated from Iran, long ago, to the Jews, even the Rohingya Muslims; India doesn’t have problems with small minorities. India is close to them and treat them very well."

Historic relationship

But when the state of Israel was created, in 1948, India's attitude was less forthcoming. New Delhi recognized Israel in 1950, two years after its birth, but kept its distance.

“Throughout recent history [the relations] have been very contradictory,” says Chenoi.

"Traditionally, India, like many of the non-aligned countries, were very supportive of the Palestinians cause and critical of the way Israel treated the Palestine issue and continuously violated international law, and they had the opinion that there should be a two-state solution.”

India was also afraid that its citizens, many of whom were working in Arab countries as servants or construction workers, might face problems as a result of closer ties between New Delhi and Israel.

But India’s attitude changed over the decades, and under the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, ties grew closer than they were ever before:

“The two countries have a common strategic agenda,” says Inbar. “We face the same enemy, radical Islam, and we live in tough neighborhoods.”

To illustrate the point, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart met with Moshe Holtzberg, whose parents were murdered in the 26 November 2008 terrorist attack on the Mumbai Chabad House.The attack resulted in a closer cooperation in the field of intelligence and counter-terrorism.

“There is a good defense relationship, the sales of Israeli military equipment is about 1.1 billion euros per year.

"Apart from that there is very good cooperation in intelligence, in counter terrorism, there is Israeli input in water management, in agriculture. The sky is the limit,” says Inbar.

Palestinian mistake

And in a breach of tradition, Modi did not visit the Palestinians, unlike other official visits by notably the Indian president Pranab Mukherjee in 2015, and visits by Indian ministers who always went to see the Palestinian leaders if they were on an official trip to Israel as well.

It didn’t go down well with the Palestinians.

“It is a very serious diplomatic mistake and it should not have happened, especially from the Prime Minister of India, whose people is absolutely supportive of the Palestinian cause,” says Mustapha Barguti, a member of the Palestinian parliament and leader of the political movement Palestinian National Initiative.

“And I think this is a mistake that will definitely hurt the Palestinian feelings, because it was not expected to come from an Indian Prime Minister.

“Yet on the other hand we have seen how this right-wing government in India has been changing the official and traditional position regarding the Palestinian issue.

“And this is unfortunate because it will immediately contradict not only the feelings of 180 million Muslims in India, but the feelings, in my opinion, of most Indian people,” he says.

Another party that won't be happy with the current rapprochement is Israel's arch enemy Iran that traditionally had good ties with India.

Tehran will now have to wait and see if India will shift its focus away from Iran and join in an axis with the US and Israel, or if it will maintain an more independent foreign policy.

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