Can Israel’s Special Partnership with India be a Gateway for further Asian Inroads?

Aishik Bag
August 18, 2019
Image Courtesy: The Economic Times


A paradoxical element in India’s foreign policy towards Israel has been a dominant factor in the relations between these two countries. Opposing the Zionist state internationally but being sympathetic towards the Jews represented the paradox in India’s position on the question of Israel’s homeland in Palestine. India formally recognized Israel on 17 September 1950. After that, both countries enhanced their bilateral ties by establishing full diplomatic relation in 1992. India’s position against anti-Semitic sentiments naturally appealed to the Jews, some of whom migrated to India during the dreadful period of holocaust. Historically, Hindus and Jews have lived together with one another peacefully since the advent of Judaism in India. It is interesting to note that despite such people-to-people contact and absence of any hostility, India and Israel had no official diplomatic ties between them until 1992. The friendly gesture to establish diplomatic ties was articulated by Israel after the formation of the Independent Jewish State in 1948. However, India’s stepped forward in formally recognizing Israel only in 1992 under the leadership of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Despite being unable to pursue an independent foreign policy until 1947, various events and changes in the international system as well in the domestic situation created the base for India’s future foreign policy towards Israel. Domestic factors in India were probably the most influential determinant of India-Israel relations. Within India, factors like religion, perspectives of the nationalists and predominant leaders, and the role of the political party were critical in the making of a new bilateral relationship between India and Israel.

The rise of non-western powers and capability of these countries to influence global affairs has already shifted the paradigm of world politics. The idea of the alliance has changed in recent times as we are moving towards a multipolar world system. Asia’s financial growth as well as a decline in West’s financial status in the last few years, along with Israel’s own technological advancements created space for the latter in Asian markets. In recent years Israeli exports to Asia grew by 23%, and imports dropped by 17% from the Asian continent. One of the reasons behind Israel’s Asia orientation can be attributed to its geo-strategic position. Israel is surrounded by adverse neighbors. Despite increased acceptance of Israel among the Gulf countries, it has not been possible to create a market for the Israeli innovation within this region. Asian markets provide the necessary platform for recognition as well as acceptance of Israeli innovations. Being surrounded by hostility pushed Israel to develop such a robust defense industry, but because of the capital, intensive nature of defense production and innovation, Israel’s main impediment is attracting enough investments in the area to sustain it. Also, Israel needs to look for bigger markets for its defense exports. Asia’s growing military market on the back of huge investments by Asian countries on the defense budget makes this region a potential partner of Israel. Beyond these strategic and economic perspectives, what makes Asia so lucrative to Israel is the political acceptance of Israel among the Asian nations. India has always been free from the anti-Semitism, and that same applies in case of other Asian nations. On the other hand, Anti-Semitic sentiment is prevalent in Europe. Asian nations have never been critical of Israel’s neighborhood policy, whereas Israel’s policy towards Palestine has often been criticized by several European Nations. Criticism even came from Latin America. Neutral approach from the Asian countries encouraged Israel to deepen its ties with this region. As Asia is home to three economic giants, “bonhomie” with India can act as a natural gateway to closer partnerships with other Asian nations.

Sixty years of isolation pushed Israel towards becoming a close ally of the western powers. Asian disorientation with the Jewish demand for a homeland and its perception through a religious lens, instead of a political one, has long alienated Israel’s integration process within the vast Asian political contours. The rise of Israel as a militarily and economically strong state has altered the rationales for its acceptance among Asian countries. Recent trends in Israeli exports are reflective of this change.  Instead of its erstwhile mainly Eurocentric trade, Israel has now turned to Asia, with a substantial trade has been taking place with the Asian countries. The importance of India in this regard lies in its size, political capital, and economic capability in shaping the trends of trade in the sub-continent. Most of the South Asian countries’ civilizations have been influenced by the civilization of India. Before being born as a sovereign nation, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar was under the greater Indian civilization. Indian culture, food, customs, practices, philosophy are largely celebrated and practiced in these nations. The presence of strong Indian Diaspora in the broader South Asian region has helped sustain Indian civilizational influence in these nations. Strong regional cooperation through various organizations and India’s participation as benevolent “Big Brother” in broader South Asian regional issues helped India to emerge as a more viable and reliable partner in this region. Secular characteristics of India enables her to associate with any country under common interests irrespective of their different ideological orientation. For instance, Indonesia, the largest Islamic nation, and Myanmar, with its Buddhist orientation, are trusted Indian partners. Although India’s political relation was not always stable with these nations, but a strong cultural and civilizational connection has been a persistent feature, especially with the growing role of Indian Diaspora in the region. Such regional leverage of India clearly offers Israel a lucrative avenue to the other countries of this region. Close relations with India must be beneficial for Israel in this regard.

The new world order with multipolar tendencies truly counters the idea of a single dominant power. Israel’s pivot to Asia is one of the notable examples of this argument, and India can play a crucial role in this context. Nevertheless, it is hardly possible for Israel to base its strategic partnership with India solely on civilizational links. Israel’s need for tracing back and revival of the age-old civilizational, cultural bond with India is important in a greater Asian context, with a special focus on South Asia.

*** The author is a graduate from Institute of Foreign Policy studies, University of Calcutta. His M.Phil dissertation was on “India-Israel Relation: Perspective on Changing Nature of India’s West Asia Policy” and his area of interests includes Maritime security in the Indian Ocean, riparian relations and geopolitics of South Asia. ***