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July 9, 2017 1:02 pm

The Remarkable Change in India-Israel Relations

avatar by Mitchell Bard

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Indian PM Narendra Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu greet each other at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Tuesday. Photo: Modi’s Twitter account.

While the antisemites continue to spin their wheels trying to convince college student governments to adopt meaningless divestment resolutions and persuade rock stars to boycott Israel, the prime ministers of Israel and India met this week for an incredibly productive visit. During the visit, the world’s most populous democracy signed contracts with Israel worth billions of dollars.

What must be particularly galling to BDS advocates is that India was once a vigorous adherent to the Arab League boycott. Yet the change in India’s posture towards Israel did not happen overnight.

India is one of the few countries where antisemitism has been non-existent. For decades, however, India was one of the leaders of the nonaligned bloc in the United Nations, and pursued a hostile policy toward Israel — in part due to the fear of alienating Arab and Muslim countries, as well as India’s 110 million Muslims citizens.

In 1988, India excluded Israel from the World Table Tennis Championships in New Delhi, and — in 1990 — three prominent Indian musicians were told not to travel to Israel to perform at the World Music Festival. That same year, four Israeli tennis players were denied visas to participate in a tournament in India after their entry fees had already been accepted.

But Indian policy slowly began to change in 1991. One of the first signs of a thaw came in June of that year, when seven Israelis and one Dutch tourist were kidnapped by Muslim terrorists in Srinagar, Kashmir. One 22-year-old Israeli was killed in the incident. The Indian government worked with Israel to secure the release of other Israelis, who eventually escaped.

Still, on November 26, 1991, India’s external affairs minister was quoted as saying ambassadors could not be exchanged with Israel until “genuine progress” was reached in Middle East peace talks. By this, the minister meant that Israel had to withdraw from the territories and create a Palestinian state. India’s Statesman newspaper called the minister’s remarks a “mindless pronouncement.”

That same month, a delegation of the World Jewish Congress met with Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and asked him to upgrade Israel’s consular office in Bombay to an embassy. That office, established in the 1950s to help Indian Jews emigrate to the Jewish state, was Israel’s only diplomatic post in India. By that time, approximately 35,000 Indian Jews were living in Israel, and 6,000 remained in India.

Then, in December of 1991, India surprised Israel by voting to repeal the odious UN resolution slandering Zionism as a form of racism. I was the editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report at the time, and wrote that the next logical move would be for India to normalize relations with Israel and open an embassy in Jerusalem. I was subsequently invited to write an article for The Indian-American magazine on Israel-India ties. At the time, Israeli trade with India was approximately $200 million, mostly consisting of polished diamonds. I argued that India could benefit from direct trade with Israel, cultural and academic exchanges and sharing the lessons of coping with massive influxes of refugees.

One catalyst for taking the next step to improve Israeli-Indian ties was India’s desire to participate in the international Middle East peace conference planned for Moscow on January 28, 1992. China established full diplomatic relations with Israel in order to win a seat at the table, and India did not want to be left out. The George H.W. Bush administration, which had lobbied India to vote for the repeal of the Zionism resolution at the UN, made it clear that Israel would not agree to India’s participation if relations were not normalized.

India was also being encouraged to improve ties with Israel by the one-million-strong Indian community in the United States. Narayan Keshavan, the Washington Bureau Chief of the Indian-American, noted at the time that “influential leaders such as Dr. Mukund Mody of the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Kamal Dandona of the Indian National Congress of America, which backs the ruling party in New Delhi, have pushed for better Indo-Israeli relations.”

Like many other countries, India also believed that improving ties with Israel would ingratiate the country with the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, which would then support policies favorable to New Delhi. India’s policy shift was also related to fears that Pakistan might be the country to benefit if it were to tilt toward Israel. India also hoped to take advantage of the shared interest with Israel in preventing Pakistan from becoming a nuclear power.

Keshavan noted that the Rao government had nothing to lose domestically by improving ties with Israel, because his party could not count on the Muslim vote anyway, and the opposition supported the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. The Arab states were also in no position to protest India’s policy change, due to the participation of Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Palestinians in talks with Israel at the Madrid conference in 1991.

On January 29, 1992, India announced that it would establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. A few months later, the two nations signed an agreement to increase cooperation between Indian and Israeli industries. An agreement was also initialed to allow Air India and El Al to operate flights between the two countries, and to promote tourism.

Today, trade between the two countries is booming. India is Israel’s ninth leading trade partner. Exports have risen from $200 million in 1992 to $4.2 billion in 2016. In the past decade alone, Israel’s exports to India have risen a total of about 60%. Israeli companies with representative offices or manufacturing plants in India include Teva, Netafim, Check Point, Amdocs, Magic Software, Ness Technologies, Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit, Verint, Mobileye and HP Indigo.

Military cooperation is especially robust, with Israel selling billions of dollars’ worth of weapons systems to India. The Indian Navy makes port visits in Haifa, and the IDF and Indian military have engaged in joint exercises. In June, for example, pilots from India joined counterparts from Israel, the United States, Germany, France, Italy and Poland in the largest aerial training exercise ever held in Israel.

Israelis can also be found throughout India, as the country has become a popular tourist destination — especially for Israelis following their army service. The number of tourists visiting Israel from India has also increased dramatically, with 40,000 Indian nationals vacationing in Israel in 2015.

Following the recent visit of Prime Minister Modi to Israel, Israeli-Indian relations can be expected to grow exponentially in a variety of spheres. Can you think of a more powerful rebuke to the BDS movement than the strengthening of ties between Israel and a country of 1.3 billion people?

Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” “The Arab Lobby,” and the novel “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”

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