India Turns to Israel

At the Maccabiah games held in Israel during July 2013, a contingent of 28 Indian Jews competed with 9000 Jewish athletes from more than 70 countries in the 38 sports contested. The members of the contingent won no medals but their team did beat the British team at cricket. Impressive though this triumph in Tel Aviv may be, far more important is the increasingly cordial relationship between Israel and India.

Cordiality was not always the case. India voted against the November 29, 1947 United Nations Partition Resolution that led to the creation of Israel. It voted in 1949 against Israel becoming a member of the United Nations. It did recognize the existence of Israel as a state in 1950. This position was supported by Hindu organizations throughout the country while the ruling Congress party appeased the Muslim population. But India, a founding member of the nonaligned movement and essentially pro-Arab in its policy positions, did not establish formal diplomatic relations with the Jewish state until January 1992. At that point J. N. Dixit, the Indian foreign minister, complained, "What have the Arabs given us?"

The relationship between the two countries has been uneven depending on the policies of the different Indian political leaders in power, though official contacts have been maintained. The relationship cannot be termed an alliance but clearly closer relations have been developing in recent years. India, conscious for many years of the power and the influence of the Soviet Union, supposedly anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist, concerned to placate Arab opinion, worried about energy supplies from the Gulf states, and always anxious about the more than 120 million Muslims in its population, has since the fall of the Soviet Union become aware of the benefits gained from cooperation with Israel. The benefits have largely been in the area of mutual trade, but both countries have experienced security problems, difficulties with Muslim minorities and have been confronted by Islamist terrorists. To this end a joint anti-terror commission was set up in 2000 to deal with the problem of Islamist extremists.

The present reality is that bilateral trade between the two countries, about $200 million in 2001, amounted in 2010 to $4.7 billion, and in 2013 to $6.6 billion, in addition to a $50 million academic research arrangement. India is now Israel's second largest export market, and its eighth largest trading partner. Israel has access to the Indian domestic market while Indians have access to Israel's high technology sector. In 2013, negotiations began for a free trade agreement involving technology, biotechnology, and agriculture. Already there is a three-year agricultural agreement according to which Israel helps Indian farmers; it has set up 28 agricultural training centers in 10 of the Indian states.

Indian officials appreciate the value of Israeli expertise. By an agreement of May 2005 for joint endeavors five areas have been listed as priorities in a number of technology fields: nanotechnology, biotechnology, water management, alternative energy, and space and aeronautics.

Since 2006 the two countries have been cooperating on water technology, especially in the fields of drip irrigation and desalination, in both of which Israel is a global leader. A $50 million agricultural fund focuses on dairy farming technology and micro-irrigation. An agreement in 2011 fostered cooperation on urban water systems. This resulted from years of joint research and shared investment in water technologies.

In their search for methods to provide cleaner water for the 1.2 billion population in their country, Indian officials and engineers have been consulting Israeli personnel who have solved many of the similar problems that India is facing. To find solutions for the major water crisis in their country, a group of 16 Indian officials in June 2013 visited wastewater treatment plants in Israel, and met with leading environmentalists and agronomists. They commented on the success of Israeli technologies that India was unable to implement at this time.

Apart from technological and research assistance, Israel has also been involved in Indian security. A major part of the trade relationship between the two countries has been in arms supplies; Israel is now, after Russia, the largest supplier of arms to India. The two countries have cooperated in joint research on military weapons and on intelligence issues. India launched a 300-kilogram satellite for Israel through its space program. India bought the Barak-1 missiles from Israel as well as an anti-aircraft system, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, electronic equipment, and laser-guided bombs. India also been considering, or rather reconsidering, buying the Israeli Iron Dome.

All this may produce political changes in India's Middle East policies. India has long been supportive of the Palestinian cause. It was, in 1975, the first non-Arab state to recognize the PLO, as "the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," a phrase coined by Yasser Arafat. It was, in 1988, one of the first countries to recognize the "State of Palestine." The Indian position on the Arab-Israeli conflict was made clear by Manmohan Singh, prime minister at the UN General Assembly session on September 24, 2011. He then declared, "India is steadfast in its support for the Palestinian people's struggle for a sovereign, independent, viable and united state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognizable borders side by side and at peace with Israel." On November 29, 2012 India cosponsored the resolution of the UN General Assembly upgrading the status of Palestinians to non-member observer state. It gave $10 million to the Palestinian Authority.

Nevertheless, though India nominally supports the Palestinian bid for full membership of the United Nations, it still believes that the only realistic path for the Palestinians to achieve statehood is through direct negotiations. The Hindu majority in India is one of the world's least receptive peoples to anti-Semitism. It is also aware that, notwithstanding Indian's support of Palestinians, that Muslims will generally remain hostile to it. They remember that while the Palestinians favored Pakistan in its dispute with India over Kashmir, Israel supported India. Above all, they are aware that Israel and India share a common enemy, Islamic extremism. This may bring the two countries even closer together.