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Why Modi’s India aligns more closely with Israel than with Palestinians

Past support for PLO has given way to a tacit alliance based on commercial ties and a sense of facing common foe

At the 2009 Aero India trade show held in Bangalore, the Israeli arms company Rafael screened a Bollywood-themed music video. It features an Israeli man in a leather jacket pirouetting with a woman dressed in gauzy Indian clothes. “I promise to defend you,” he sings, “fulfill your expectations. Shield you and support you, meet my obligations.” Instead of Bollywood’s more typical trees, the couple dances around missiles garlanded with flowers. Pictures of Hindu deities look on from the walls. The woman representing India leans into the man with her hands pressed against her chest. “Together, forever,” she croons, “I will hold you in my heart.” At its end, the video cuts to black with the message: “Rafael, your partner for indigenous air systems.”

The tongue-in-cheek video underscored serious business. Rafael won a $1 billion contract that year to provide India with surface-to-air missile systems, and along with other Israeli companies it has supplied New Delhi with an estimated $10 billion in military gear over the last decade, according to the Economic Times. Israel now ranks second only to Russia as the biggest supplier of military equipment to India. In keeping with the metaphor of the Rafael video, outgoing Israeli ambassador Alon Ushpiz last June hailed his country’s relationship with India as one in which “two intimate partners who trust each other start thinking of challenges together and solutions together and what follows together.”

There was no such coziness two decades ago, when India refused even to keep an embassy in Israel. But where protests and public denunciations of Israeli excesses were once routine, today many commentators see India’s traditional support for Palestinians as anachronistic and inimical to the national interest.

India backed a call for a United Nations Human Rights Council investigation into Israel’s ongoing onslaught in Gaza last week (the United States was the only country to oppose the resolution). But that was a largely symbolic vote. At home, the newly elected government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blocked parliamentary votes to condemn Israeli actions.

As Sadanand Dhume, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argued in the Wall Street Journal, “New Delhi appears ready to suggest publicly what many officials already acknowledge privately: A burgeoning strategic partnership with Israel matters more to India than reflexive solidarity with the Palestinian cause."

Until the end of the Cold War, India had maintained consistent support for Palestinians. Mahatma Gandhi had poured scorn on the idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East. “Surely it would be a crime against humanity,” he wrote in 1938, “to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.” India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, voted against Israel joining the United Nations in 1949. And the Nehruvian principle of solidarity with anti-colonial causes guided Indian foreign policy for much of the 20th century. In 1974, India became the first non-Arab state to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the official representative of Palestinians. It treated Israel with much the same diplomatic disdain it reserved for apartheid South Africa.

Critics of India’s traditional Israel policy dismiss it as a cynical bid to court India’s large Muslim vote, but many officials saw an echo of their own worldview in the struggle of a secular and multi-religious PLO against an Israeli state defined by religion. Some even saw that as an echo of India’s own confrontations with Pakistan. Both Israel and Pakistan were born after World War II with religious identity as their central organizing principle, as a result of partition policies adopted by the departing British colonial authorities.

It’s a parallel not lost on Pakistani leaders. Former military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq claimed in 1981 that “Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state. Take out the Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse.” In 2012, another former military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, urged the establishment of better ties with Israel.

India’s foreign policy shift on Israel began with the international impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Non-alignment and anti-colonial solidarity seemed moth-eaten in a world of unrivaled American power and triumphant capitalism. India pivoted, aligning itself more closely with the United States. It also began to strengthen ties with Israel, with both countries exchanging ambassadors in 1992.

India’s engagement with Israel has grown substantially in the last two decades on military, scientific, commercial and agricultural matters. The affinity has been less ideological than pragmatic, each side understanding the other’s needs. Israel remains uncomfortable about India’s close ties with Iran, just as India looks warily at Israel’s relationship with China. Neither side allows their bilateral relationship to be imperiled by India’s rhetorical condemnation of Israeli actions — dismissed by one Israeli journalist as India’s “periodic lip service to the Palestinian plight.”

Material benefits are not the only reason for India’s foreign policy establishment building friendly relations with Israel. There’s also the feeling that New Delhi has been poorly compensated for supporting Palestine. It may be home to the world’s second largest Muslim population, but India has been consistently blocked from involvement in the Organization of the Islamic Conference. It is also disappointed by what it sees as the Arab world’s simplistic position on the thorny issue of Kashmir. “India has received no worthwhile backing from the Arab countries in the resolution of problems it faces in its neighborhood, especially Kashmir,” wrote Harsh V. Pant, a scholar of international relations at King’s College London. “There have been no serious attempts by the Arab world to put pressure on Pakistan to reign in the cross-border insurgency in Kashmir.”

India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj insisted in July that “there is absolutely no change in India’s policy towards Palestine, which is that we fully support the Palestinian cause while maintaining good relations with Israel.” That might sound like fence-sitting, but it’s a policy shared by all Indian governments of the past 20 years.

Though India’s realpolitik shift is not the work of a particular party or faction, India’s resurgent right-wing is far more ideologically sympathetic to Israel. Prime Minister Modi, then-chief minister of Gujarat with a reputation as an anti-Muslim firebrand, visited Israel in 2006. The Indian conversation about Israel and Palestine has become tinged by India’s own politics of religion and identity. India’s defenders of Israel see both nations engaged in a common conflict against Islamist extremism, placing Hamas in a continuum that runs all the way to South Asia.

According to the conservative political writer Swapan Dasgupta, “Israel has far more friends in India than TV anchors and left-leaning policy correspondents realize.” The same Internet army of right-wing Indians that supported Modi’s election has mobilized in support of Israel. The Twitter hashtag “#IndiaWithIsrael” trended across the country, galvanizing real-life rallies in support of Israel’s campaign in Gaza. Chetan Bhagat, an author who sells millions of books and is widely seen as the voice of the youthful middle-class, spoke out in favor of Israel. “What is happening to Gaza isn't fair,” he tweeted, “but sadly that is the only way sometimes terrorist organizations and their supporters learn to behave.”

Israeli embassy spokesman Ohad Horsandi emphasized the shared experience of terrorism. “Israel, India and other like minded countries,” he told Indian media, “are facing terror threats from organizations with similar radical ideology such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant outfit accused of committing the 2008 Mumbai attacks and other atrocities in India] and Hamas. These organizations are committed to kill, kidnap and terrorize civilians and should be treated as terrorist organizations.”

Public opinion in India remains divided, however, and Indians of all stripes have expressed horror at the Israeli siege of Gaza. But the extent of public support in India for Israel’s current offensive would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

Where once the anti-colonial rhetoric of Gandhi and Nehru might have guided Indian affinities, in today’s enthusiasm for the “war on terror” we see traces of another 20th century Indian ideologue.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was at odds with the secular pluralism of India’s mainstream independence struggle. His book, Hindutva, provided the theoretical underpinning of the Hindu nationalist tradition that eventually birthed the BJP.

Inspired by Zionism, Savarkar believed that Hindus and Jews shared a history of oppression at the hands of Muslims, and that both deserved redress. “It must be emphasized that speaking historically, the whole of Palestine has been, from at least 2,000 years before the birth of the Muslim prophet, the national home of the Jewish people,” Savarkar said. In Hindutva (published in 1923), he underlined his support for the Zionist cause. "If the Zionists’ dreams were realized, if Palestine became a Jewish state, it would gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends."

Under Modi’s leadership, India looks set to build an even closer friendship with Israel, no matter what degree of devastation is unleashed in Gaza this summer.

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