Israel Might Be More Reliable Ally for India

Israel and India still see the world differently despite growing defense ties.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Bosom buddies: Prime Minister Netanyahu with India's PM Narendra Modi
Bosom buddies: Prime Minister Netanyahu with India's PM Narendra Modi
Avi Ohayon, GPO

Everyone is excited about the prospects that Israel could foster a new military ally in India. People should not expect as deep a strategic relationship though as Israel has with, say, the United States. Well, not yet at least. In a continuing discussion with Arjun Rashem Hardas, the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) representative in India and formerly at the India desk for The Israel Project, he explains that while there is plenty the two countries can exchange, the outlook the two have of the world is still very different.

"On how India views the Arabs, the Turks and the Iranians, there is a major disconnect between Israelis and Indians. The way Israelis view the dynamic between Sunnis and Shiites is completely different."

The Indian experience with radical Islam has been through Pakistan. Numerous terrorist attacks have hit India, most notably the attack in 2008 that left about 160 people dead, including two Israeli Chabad emissaries.

"Indians do not see Iran as an existential threat at all. Aligning with Saudi Arabia is considered insane by people here. Indians see Wahhabism as the threat."

It is not a fault of Indians, Hardas explains. Even the Israeli focus on Shiite extremism is new relative to its longer issue in dealing with Hamas and Sunni religious movements. In the 1970s and the 1980s, Saudi Arabia became a major financier of madrasas (Muslim seminaries) in Pakistan. That support increased tremendously after the Iranian revolution. The 1980s also saw massive Saudi aid to mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, a war in which Osama bin Laden famously took part and first earned his reputation. If Israel and Saudi Arabia are working together against Iran, Indians see it as some sort of a ploy.

"People here will say that, ‘You are getting fooled by the Saudis!’ To Indians, they see Iran as a potential asset, like it was before 1979."

Mr. Hardas does not say this is necessarily an informed position, merely how people on the street still view it if you were to come up and ask. Iran is a major exporter of oil to India, and as well as something much deeper: culture.

"Indians feel Iranians are more civilized. The problem is the clergy. But even the clergy has its limits. They also have something of an ‘older civilization.’” Since Islam marks a sort of beginning for Arab culture, informing on a perception that “Arab culture though is not as old or as deep as this 4,000-year-old perception of Persian society."

When asked if India would be eager to mediate between Israel and Iran if the day might come that the countries were on the verge of ending their conflict, he said they might not jump at it but they would certainly volunteer.

He added, “In fact, it was that sort of offer that really sealed the deal on the new relationship. India offered to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, but Israel said ‘No, you have to have relations with our country first.’ By the next year, embassies were open again.”

Since then, Israel has shown itself to be an extremely reliable ally relative to, of all countries, the United States. The US and India have not always had the easiest relationship. In fact, it was at one point openly hostile. The US used to consider Pakistan a bulwark against communism, giving the Muslim country millions in weapons.

"Nixon was completely against India. He wanted to leverage Pakistan's relationship with China to make a breakthrough in US-Chinese ties a cornerstone of his administration. He did not want to alienate Pakistan. During the 1971 war (between India and Pakistan), he even sent the American fleet to intimidate India."

Contrast this event with how, in 1999, Israel responded to a desperate call by India for extra artillery shells in the Kargil War against Pakistan. According to several Indian commentators, that really got the ball rolling in how India perceived Israel.

According to Hardas, that aid also included "bunkerbusters and laser-guided weapons with no questions asked. That act has weighed very heavily on the Indian mindset ever since. It has been a thread."

The United States is not perceived in a completely negative way, but it is Israel that has been the site of several defense projects, including the “delivery of several AWACS radar systems – a sale India knows the US could have blocked like they asked Israel to stop with China.”

Other major shifts included the end of the Cold War and the inevitable realization that no matter how much India tried to take the Arabs' side on the Arab-Israeli conflict, their support was always thankless when it came to Arab support for Pakistan.

What might be the icing on the cake though is the way that Jewish organizations in the United States have come to support the growing alliance in ways that have not had direct benefit to Israel, but certainly have benefited India. Hardas credits groups like the AJC for pushing through Congress the U.S.–India Civil Nuclear Agreement that opened up India’s civil nuclear industry to trade and removing limits on sales to India because of its military program.

“Israel has been very supportive. It is amazing cooperation the two states have right now. Those groups made sure that agreement passed. India has been extremely happy with the cooperation.”