India's Israel Policy

March 9, 2011
Event: 
Book Discussion Forum

Speaker: Professor P R Kumaraswamy

Panelists: Ambassador Shyam Saran (Chair), Shri Inder Malhotra, Cmde Uday Bhaskar, Professor Sreeram Chaulia

During a time the West Asian region is undergoing a historical change, India’s Israel Policy a book which transcends India-Israel relations to deal with the significance of the West Asian region to India is most opportune. Moreover, to produce a definitive, impassioned and exhaustive account on the subject with impeccable scholarship, diligence is obviously a formidable achievement. Such were the remarks of felicitation to Prof. P.R. Kumaraswamy for his book India’s Israel Policy.

According to Prof. Kumaraswamy, it is difficult to use the term ‘relations’ for India-Israel relations since bulk of the period is characterised by ‘non-relations’. His presentation covered three broad categories;

1) Early 1920s – 1992: - The Indian pro- Arab position hindered understanding, appreciating and supporting Jewish longing for a homeland. With India’s inclusion into United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) where India presented the federal plan while the majority advocated partition as the solution, India’s position towards Israel became official. The federal plan which suggested a division of the mandate Palestine into an independent Arab state and a Jewish state within one federal Palestine was unrealistic since the relations between Jews and Arabs were unbridgeable by 1947. Although India voted against the partition plan along with the Arab countries, once Israel became a reality, India had to come to terms with it. Even though normalisation of relations was agreed upon by 1952, the process took 40 years as a result of the opposition of the Indian political elite as well as international developments such as the Suez Crisis. By late 1960s, it was evident that the Indian position would not be shifted unless there is a rapid international transition, as it became clear after the end of Cold War which provided a framework for the absence of relations between India and Israel and consolidated it, though not responsible for it. Different international equations, a world dominated by the USA and willingness of the Arabs to negotiate with Israel in the post Cold War context facilitated India to normalise her relations with Israel.

2) After 1992: - With the changed circumstances, India-Israel relations expanded enormously; economically, politically and militarily. India has emerged as the largest market for Israel’s military exports. However, improved relations with Israel do not imply deterioration of her relations with Palestine. On the contrary, India is being able to maintain her position regarding the Peace Process, refugees, border, terrorism... and supports the Palestine interest of statehood and sovereignty in theory and practice. India has exhibited a great degree of balance and better leverages at India’s position have aided India to maintain ‘silence’ on her policies towards Israel.

3) Strategic view 2020: - There is a degree of sophistication in the Indian approach to diplomatic relations. She is being able to conduct bi-lateral relations independent of her disagreements at the multi-lateral level.

As indicated by Ambassador Shyam Saran, Indian political elite expressed a sense of reluctance in initiating relations with Israel. The shift in her position with the changing international environment is a prudent act. However, complete normalisation of India-Israel relations is yet to be completed owing to India’s disinclination to extend ordinary relations it practices with other countries vis-à-vis Israel.

Shri Inder Malhotra, a senior journalist, provided a historical account and stated that the lack of relations does not mean an animosity as was explained by Nehru’s behaviour in the Asian Relations conference and Bandung Conference as well as Indira Gandhi’s response when India was threatened by Saudi Arabia during the Oil Crisis. Contrary to the popular belief, the India Muslim population and domestic politics did not have a connection to the absence of relations nor did they have to deal with any repercussions after India established relations with Israel.

Professor Sreeram Chaulia suggested that deepening isolation of Israel due to the Arab transition that has taken an independent line with democratic system, huge set back in Israel’s traditional alliance with Turkey due to the rise of Islamic Justice Party in Turkey and Flotilla incident in addition to the Obama factor has added a greater importance of India to Israel. In this backdrop, Israel would be looking for friends, sympathy and empathy in other regions of the world, especially with countries like India which don’t have a direct stake in the conflict and with whom it has strong economic relations. Therefore, the Indian policy makers should be mindful of the geopolitical shift of isolation and calibrate their policies accordingly. Moreover, it is interesting to examine the impact of Israel relations on the domestic politics in terms of an Israeli lobby and various investments in Indian politics by Israelis. With the changing scenarios in the international system, it is advisable for India to adopt a global approach like Brazil and Turkey without being confined to bilateral relations since it would win goodwill, proverbial ‘soft power’ and make India truly a global power.

Commodore Uday Bhaskar while highlighting security dimension as one of the most significant aspects in the bilateral relations pointed out that India’s Israel Policy only handles military, defence co-operation in a limited way. Inconsistency in India’s policy towards Israel brings out the kind of dilemmas a country like India encounter in finding an appropriate balance – equipoise between realpolitik and values. The book also elucidates on Indian policy establishment’s failure to inform and shape the public discourse, esp. vis-à-vis India-Israel relations. Even though the book correctly addresses contradictions between India’s foreign policy orientation, its security compulsions and nature of the domestic debate, the arguments raised in the book are not provocative.

Questions and answers session distinguished the difference between India’s response to ‘Jewish’ identity and India’s relations with Israel. Ambassador Bhutani stated that India’s sympathy with Jews does not have to ipso facto translate into its relations with Israel. Moreover, it was shown that so far India has only exploited Defence Avenue in her relations with Israel though there are other avenues in agriculture and pharmaceuticals. Prof. Kumaraswamy stated that historical presence of a Jewish population in India didn’t have any impact on India’s relations or non-relations with Israel and emphasised that bi-lateral relations with any country cannot be formulated independent of the domestic politics.

V. Krishnappa closed the session with the thought of ‘internationalism and globalism’ informing the Indian policy and importance of locating Israeli vector in Indian policy as proposed by Professor Chaulia. He also invited the audience to participate in various interactions organised by the IDSA.

Report prepared by Amali Wedagedara, Research Intern, IDSA